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18th BFI Future Film Festival, 2024

"I dont feel like I am in the best position to comment on this, as I am still trying to climb the ladder of the world cinema filmmaking scene and trying to figure out if my talent is even worth a damn or not, or even if I have any to begin with; most of all, what it is that I have to share with the world that is worth telling."

In the history of the United States, the Oath of Allegiance has led to American citizenship for over 200 years, and today, you will become that part of that history. As Catherine reminisces on her past and her national identity, she realizes that she is able to finish reciting the Oath of Allegiance, all but the last words “so help me god.”

Hi Jeffery, thank you for talking to TNC. How does it feel to have The Oath part of this year's BFI Future Film Festival?


It’s a great honour. This is actually my first film festival selection of such magnitude, so it definitely has a special place in my heart. 

What was the experience for you attending the TISCH School of Arts as an exchange student, and how much did this year help inform your understanding of filmmaking and what you want to do in the industry?


I had always been an autodidactic/self-taught filmmaker. I started in high school, making films with friends. Going into college, the university I chose to attend in Japan is one of the oldest and has the richest independent student-film culture in Japan, which is still up and lively today. But after two years of unattended trying and failing, I realized how bad, or rather how long of a way I still needed to go—-basically I realized I wasn’t the genius I thought I was (laugh), so I decided to do an exchange program and study abroad for a year at an American university that had a distinguished film sector, and learn the “basics” and fundamentals, the systematic training and education that these elite film programs teach their prospective filmmakers. NYU was the obvious choice. 

TISCH and New York City—-this is also the sound-bite response I use with all my friends when they asked me how TISCH was and what was New York City like—-impressive. My year at TISCH was a healthy diet of hands-on, do-heavy filmmaking classes with a little bit of writing and cinema studies, and a lot of time just spent in the library just munching up NYU’s great collection of films and cinemas (landmarks, hallmarks, historic venues!) around the East Village; and of course, an occasional visit up at Lincoln Center. 

The TISCH experience was rough at first. Because I wasn’t a degree student and was a visiting student, I technically didn’t have a major, so I couldn’t take any classes from their film major catalog. But they had this thing called the open arts program, which is a catalog of classes any one can take, open to all NYU students regardless of your department or major, hence “open” arts. And there were filmmaking classes there that I was lucky enough to enroll in because of their high demand. And it wasn’t an inferior version of the film majors’ classes; we basically got the same education, content-wise, in that class. Groups of four, everyone had to produce a couple of films that were under 5 minutes that didn’t contain sync-sound dialogue. The objective was to teach you “visual storytelling.” At first I was like, how the hell, a narrative short in under five and no sync-sound? Impossible. ‘Cause, you know, being self taught, and with the technology of today, it’s not that hard to film with some decent sync-sound. But then in the end, it gave me a whole new perspective. 

In terms of giving me ideas of what I want to do in the industry…Let’s just say, it definitely gave me some new ideas and hopes, but I’m still trying to figure that out.

How important are festivals like Future Film Festival in creating a platform for short films and emerging filmmakers?


I think it’s so important and encouraging when institutions like the BFI are doing it. I don’t feel like I am in the best position to comment on this, as I am still trying to climb the ladder of the world cinema filmmaking scene and trying to figure out if my talent is even worth a damn or not, or even if I have any to begin with; most of all, what it is that I have to share with the world that is worth telling. And when I feel like I have an answer, and actually pursue the answer, it’s always reassuring when you know that there are platforms and film festivals like this that will pick up your voice and champion that. On a personal level though, it’s an ultimate form of validation that can keep you going on making films and chasing the dream for another couple of years (laugh). 

What more can be done on a local/national level to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?

This is something I’ve seen in Japan, and I suspect that the BFI Future is already doing something similar. But in Japan, a similar film festival, one that sort of like the BFI FF, is targeted towards independent, self-produced films from younger filmmakers (or old for that matter) that have not established themselves, sort of a platform for hidden talents. And the films that are selected are also broadcasted on a Japanese streaming platform (basically Japanese-netflix). Of course, this raises the question and debate of, well still, how are people going to find you, instead of being buried in the sea and mountain of “content” that are on these platforms (cf. 2020 Hollywood reporter director’s roundtable, Lulu Wang talking about passing on a bigger deal so that her film wasn’t lost in the pile of content that was on that platform (around 5:30-ish).


Another possibility I can think of is to broadcast these short films on TV. The UK has such a good television (especially public broadcasting) situation, that I imagine that if you broadcasted a collection of short films, like the ones in this festival, it could also potentially reach a broader audience. Now that I say that, I also imagine that something similar has already been done or is being done somewhere in the world. Again, I don’t feel like I’m in such a good position to comment on this (laugh). I guess, also, just keep trying new things with new people, and hopefully the universe will guide our films to reach the right people at the right time.

How beneficial is it for you to be able to write your films in English, Chinese and Japanese, does it allow you to give different levels of depth and understanding to the characters/situation you’re creating? 


It’s kind of a curse and a blessing. For the longest time, I felt inferior with all my languages, especially my native ones (English and Chinese), for having not grown up completely in an English speaking country, and for having only started learning the other from when I was 6. That’s actually why I gravitated towards movies and filmmaking in the first place. Wanting to be a storyteller, I thought I wasn’t going to have any good prose or high-class literature in either of my languages, so I thought, hmm well I won't have if I told stories with images; quite a naive thought I know. Now, it is still both a curse and a blessing, but I’ve learned to live with it. Sometimes it gets in the way, sometimes it does give depth and perspective. It depends. 


"Im neither completely American nor completely taiwanese, but am both very American and very taiwanese."

Can you tell me how The Oath came about, what inspired your screenplay?


It was kind of a proof-of-concept film for the thesis short I was developing while I was in New York. The story for the thesis also had a piece of text that had cultural and historical connotations, and through interacting with it raises questions of identity, culture, etc. So it was an experiment to see, okay so how do I make reading/memorising a text interesting on screen, and give the act of [reading/memorising a text] depth and meaning. 

But practically, I was in a filmmaking class, and I had to figure something out for my final project. Something that I could do with the limited time and resources the class allowed. So after I got the idea to do the Oath of Allegiance and figured most of the script out, I asked Cat if she wanted to play the character. She was my classmate in that class, a drama major, and albeit she was in a different group than I was, she happily agreed, well I don’t know if she happily agreed, but she agreed, and now we have the film. 

How I got the idea to do the Oath of Allegiance was an interesting story. My thesis film was on the Di Zi Gui, a traditional Confucian text for children, also translated as The Rules for Students, but for some reason I didn't think I could do it with the restrictions of the class (both practical and the under-5-minute, no sync-sound requirement), so I started looking elsewhere: what about a national anthem, the American national anthem? In school? Don’t they also have to recite the pledge of allegiance at school? I never really knew the words to the national anthem or the pledge of allegiance, ‘cuz I never went to school in the States. And so as I was looking up the words to the pledge of allegiance and researching it, the Oath of Allegiance came up. And a lightbulb went off. 

When working on a short like this, how much flexibility do you give yourself with your screenplay, do you prefer to stick to what you’ve written?


I did write a screenplay, though there wasn’t much to write, and I did storyboard, though I already knew that I wasn’t going to get everything that I wanted. I stuck with most of what I wrote in the screenplay, but the storyboard was just for my reference that I ended up changing here and there on the fly, according to the situation on the shoot. Of course, I’m still learning, but I think it’s important to nail your text and stay flexible; really cling onto the essentials but be less literal with the means of how you achieve that. 

What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken from making The Oath?


Rather than what I’ve gained from having made The Oath, I would much rather think about what the audience has gained. You can love it, hate it, disagree with it, think that it’s a pile of shit. But I wonder, other than your initial reaction and intuitive response to it, is there, or will there be a longer lasting effect on you down the line. For I for one have only been alive for so long and I haven’t had the years some of these more veteran filmmakers have on me, to let a film grow on you. So I wonder. I guess this is something I’ve been thinking about, especially after The Oath was selected for this film festival, now reaching a bigger audience…I wonder. 

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking, and what filmmakers have served as inspiration for you?


This relates to my language struggle, and my thinking of not being able to have good prose in any language, i think, made me gravitate towards visual storytelling. Also, another reason why is that I used to go to the movies with my mother from time to time, whenever she wasn’t working, on the weekends. And we would watch mostly American films. That made me feel like there was a way to maintain my connection to the States, my birth place that I so wanted to be my home but could nolonger be because I had left it. But eventually, I kind of just decided that a career in storytelling, some job that had to do with creating sotries and narratives, was the career I would pursue because nothing else interested me enough; and within that criteria, filmmaking, writing and directing had interested me the most (naturally, lol). 

I have had many inspirations. First it was Wes Anderson and Tarantino. Then it was Truffaut and Gordard, specifically 400 Blows and Breathless. Speilberg, Zemeckis, Scorsese, Lucas and Star Wars were always constant influences. Kubrick and Coppola, specifically the first Godfather. Then it was Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang. Ang Lee is my idol. I adore him. Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters and Afterlife are big influences. Somai Shinji is my favorite badass. He’s crazy in the best way possible.


The Pixar films I grew up with, Wall-E and Ratatouille in particular. And I love Hayao Miyazaki. I was more of a Ghibli kid than Disney. I love Kiki’s Deliverly Service. I could go on.


You also write short stories and poems, would you be able to share one of your poems with me?


Most of my poems are in Chinese and Japanese. And they’re not very good (laugh).

I’ll share a short story instead. This short story is inspired by Murakami Haruki’s anthology of birthday stories, particularly Russell Banks’ The Moor (also selected in Murakami’s anthology).

What does The Oath say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell in the future?


Identity, specifically national identity is a big theme for me, because of my background and upbringing. I ended up being a citizen living in-between the cracks. I’m neither completely American nor completely taiwanese, but am both very American and very taiwanese. And I think this isn’t just bound to identity. Everyone can feel like they don’t belong, like they are in the “in-between,” that they cannot choose to become fully one or the other. I hope to relate to that, empathetically, compassionately, tell these kinds of stories in the future. 

Is there any advice/tips you could offer a fellow filmmaker about to start their filmmaking journey?


Ooowww, I am definitely not in a position to answer this question (laugh). Try it 👍…? Just do it 👍…?

Nowadays anyone can attempt to make cinema, is what is often said. I think even Spielberg said it. I think there’s a YouTube short or an Instagram reel of him saying something like that. So honestly, try it. If you are lucky enough to be in a position to make movie magic. Try it. 

What has been the best advice you’ve been given?


Recently, it has to be, when I was shooting my “voluntary” thesis film in Taiwan. One of the actresses had a scene with her and the protagonist who was 10, a child actor, the brightest little thing, she had to cry, and we were discussing how she would guide her into getting emotional as her scene partner. It’s always cruel to try to make a child cry on camera, but as the director sometimes the circumstances force you to be a bit cruel. This was when she reminded me that the means of production for actors are their body and soul (I’m trying to capture the spirit and essence by translating it from Chinese to English, so it sounds less romantic in English but hopefully you get the gist, this was really touching stuff), their art is realised through their bodies. Adult actors, or more experienced trained actors have methods, acting methods to protect them, but a child, because they don’t have that, inevitably takes a toll on them. That realisation, that verbalisation of actors putting their body, mind, and soul on the line, really showed me a whole new dimension of how to approach working with actors as a director. And now I will be canceled for being a tyrannical, child abusing, ass for not even realising that that’s what actors do for you (jokes).

And finally, what do you hope your audiences will take away from The Oath?


In this day and age of globalisation and internationalisation, there are more of us living in the in-between than you think. I don’t hope for much, if this film can serve as a little question mark, to think about what it means to be American, British, french, Japanese, Taiwanese, any nationality really, I’d feel like I’ve done some good.

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