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So Long, Farewell

So Long, Farewell


At first glance, Malaysian-born writer-director Yen Tan would seem to have little in common with his new film, Ciao, the story of grieving Texan Jeff (Adam Neal Smith), who learns that his late friend had an e-mail relationship with hunky Italian Andrea (Alessandro Calza). But Tan's art imitates life in unexpected ways.

At first, Malaysian-born writer-director Yen Tan would seem to have little in common with his new film, Ciao, the story of grieving Texan Jeff (Adam Neal Smith), who learns that his late friend had an e-mail relationship with hunky Italian Andrea (script co-writer Alessandro Calza). Still, Tan says the movie was autobiographical in some surprising ways. us a little bit about how the movie was conceived. How did one of the leads, Alessandro Calza, end up writing this with you?Yen Tan: He saw my first film (Happy Birthday) in Italy, so he wrote me an e-mail in 2003 and we just started e-mailing from there. We had a really good sort of platonic correspondence between us -- we talked a lot about the arts and that kind of stuff and communicated on that basis. This film came along and I always thought he was kind of an interesting character from what I knew of him at that point, because this was before I had actually met him in person. Also, at this point, he was telling me stories about people he met online, long-distance relationships and so on. So I think the combination of those things inspired me to create that sort of character and also use some of his experiences in the film.

The other main character in the film lives in Texas, as you do. Did you mine a lot of your own personal experience? It's kind of funny, because when I talk to Alessandro about it now, he doesn't think that much of it is autobiographical, I think maybe in a sense because we did twist some things around for them to work for the plot. I think some of the anecdotes you hear in the film are true -- they're things that happened to us or that we've heard from friends who did online dating. But I would say that the key part of the film that has to do with mourning and loss and grief, those were things that neither one of us have experienced ourselves, but it's something that I'm personally fascinated by.

What fascinates you about it? I don't know, I've asked myself that question many times! I feel like I understand it very well, it feels very natural for me to tap into. I think a big part of the reason is because I'm an immigrant, I'm originally from Malaysia and I came to the States when I was 19. I remember going through a long time of needing to see my family, missing my life before I came to the States. I just remember those really intense feelings of homesickness, and those kind of feelings have been revisited in my life as of late, even though I do see my family. Those really intense feelings of longing. It's kind of a stretch to go from that to the feelings you have when you lose someone in your life, but for me, I could take that jump. I feel like it's almost what I went through that year times 10.

Malaysia is very strict about what films they show; what was it like to come to the U.S. and see such a wide breadth of film after growing up there? Anything that gets shown in Malaysia has to go through a very tight censorship board. It was, like, really, really strict, and in some ways ideological censorship that was happening. I was always exposed to film through that perspective. I think when I came to the States, I still hadn't become a complete person yet. It was a process that took about a year and a half, two years, before I came to terms with my sexuality, and this was in conjunction with my discovery of watching films as they were meant to be seen: uncensored. I think this time in college where I was coming out and watching and reading things I wanted to, it was like self-liberation in a way. In fact, I think those things made it easier for me to come out in some ways.

The look of the film is very locked down: stationary cameras, sterile locations. Was that a thematic choice or just a financial necessity? As you know, when you shoot something with a limited budget, it's always easy to fall into the pratfall of a film that looks too cheap or screams low-budget. So I always knew going in that I had to define the film with a very specific style that worked within our needs. So keeping those shots very simplistic was a way of giving off a very strong sense of style while not keeping things out of our economic needs. In the case of Ciao, I think the style worked thematically with the film, so it all made sense.

This is a very serious film. Do you ever think, Wow, I really want to follow this up with a madcap romantic comedy? [Laughs] I don't know! I don't consider myself as one of those film snobs; I mean, in some ways I am, but I enjoy my share of guilty pleasures. I enjoy studio films as much as the next guy. There are as many bad independent films as bad studio films. So if I can do something madcap, I'm all for it!

- Ciao is in theaters in New York City now and will open in San Francisco on December 12. For information on forthcoming screenings around the United States

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Kyle Buchanan