Taiwan's Cheng Yu-chieh moved to tears on set of his award-winning film Dear Tenant

Film-maker Cheng Yu-chieh says that writing a gay romance as a straight man was no big deal.
Film-maker Cheng Yu-chieh says that writing a gay romance as a straight man was no big deal.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

SINGAPORE - When Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage last year (2019), film-maker Cheng Yu-chieh was in the midst of writing the script for his gay-themed family film Dear Tenant.

The 43-year-old Taiwanese, who previously acted in dramas such as Police Et Vous (2008), says over a video call to local media that the ruling does not mean that the road to acceptance for same-sex couples is complete.

He says in Mandarin: "Two people getting married doesn't mean it's happily ever after. Marriage is so much about two families rather than two individuals and gets even more complicated with children.

"I think changing hearts and minds in some ways is more important than changing laws. Do people understand and tolerate other ways of living and loving?"

Dear Tenant, which is showing in cinemas, tells the story of a gay man who continues to take care of his partner's mother and son after his partner's death.

Cheng, who is married with three children, says that writing a gay romance as a straight man was no big deal.

"I'm sure gay men can write straight romances too. Ultimately, the film examines what family means and what makes love, love."

Aside from writing and directing, he also put in NT$13 million (S$613,000) of his own money into the film.

His efforts and investment paid off. Dear Tenant won leading man Mo Tzu-yi Best Leading Actor and veteran actress Chen Shu-fang Best Supporting Actress, as well as Best Original Film Score at November's Golden Horse Awards. The prestige boosted the film's box office and took it past the NT$30 million mark in Taiwan.

To celebrate the achievement, Cheng put up deleted clips from the movie onto YouTube - including an intimate scene between Mo and Yao Chun-yao, the actor who plays his partner.

The most sexually explicit scene which made it into the film - which is rated R21 in Singapore - is of Mo's cathartic hook-up in a motel with actor Wang Ko-yuan.

Mo Tzu-yi (left) and Pai Jun-yin (right) with Chen Shu-fang in the movie Dear Tenant. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Cheng says: "Mo is totally okay with going nude. As a theatre actor, he's done full-frontal nudity onstage before but, of course, we kept the crew on set to a bare minimum out of respect for the actors.

"We did a lot of the scene in one long shot. One take is actually over 10 minutes long, I just let them perform and navigate the scene between themselves."

The writer-director says he has been personally affected by his film, even once breaking into tears on set - during a scene where child star Pai Jun-yin feeds his grandmother (Chen) pills.

"It just felt so real, it didn't feel like acting at all," he says.

Pai may just be the breakout star of Dear Tenant, despite not being nominated at the Golden Horse Awards. The 11-year-old, who is of Taiwanese-Japanese descent, was as professional as an adult and spoke directly to Cheng when he had concerns about his role.

In a separate interview, Chen, 81, similarly heaped praise on Pai, calling him "an acting genius".

"He can speak his lines so smoothly. And it's not as if he's a precocious kid, the deftness of his performance is just really impressive," she says.

Chen Shu-fang in Dear Tenant. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

With 63 years of acting experience, Chen has had time to hone her craft. She was recognised for the first time at the recent Golden Horse Awards when she bagged both Best Supporting Actress, for Dear Tenant, and Best Leading Actress for family film Little Big Women.

She says she has hardly had time to celebrate as she has been busy promoting both movies following her win.

The sprightly star has had her share of ups and downs in life - including getting conned out of most of her assets by a friend, divorce and a one-year period when projects dried up. And she is looking forward to more ups.

She says with a laugh: "I still want more. Hopefully, next year I'll have another good project that'll land me another nomination. Is that too greedy?"

Dear Tenant is showing in cinemas.