Szu-Wei Chen, director of “A New Year’s Dance.” Sherry Lin pictured as Yu. (Photo courtesy Szu-Wei Chen)
A feeling of the home is the overall focus of A New Year’s Dance, the latest short film by Taiwanese filmmaker Szu-Wei Chen.
Shot in New York, where Chen has lived for the past four to five years after during and after his time at Colombia University, A New Year’s Dance stars locals to New York’s Chinatown and Flushing, Queens and is a sentimental look at Chinese-American and Chinese immigrant life. I talked with Chen recently about his new film. He said that he came up with the idea for the short film after wanting to capture his own feelings about finding a slice of home in a place far away from his original hometown.
Chen said he went to a traditional Chinese massage therapy office one day, which soothed his homesickness. He said, “They’re just so professional and they treat me like a family. And…I feel so welcome when I was there and being alone living abroad, it is very…welcoming, warm, and every time I went inside, I just [felt] like, ‘Oh, I kind of went back home.'”
“I was very intrigued by their stories and their life in New York,” he said of the women who worked in the parlor, “and also maybe because I’m also a Chinese speaker and [their lives] are related to my culture, I feel like I lived there [in New York] very well, and I can make a story about that.”
Chen said he loves the culture of America’s Chinatowns and said he was “lucky” to find authentic locations around New York for his film, including a Chinese-style apartment, dancing clubs and more. People around Chinatown were happy to help him, particularly those who he had come to know when scouting locations for his prior film, Last Day.
Chen decided to use non-actors in the film because it has been difficult to find Chinese-speaking actors who are also middle aged.
“…[I]n general, I feel it’s very hard to find middle aged actors here who can speak [the accent]. It’s just very hard to find it,” he said. “Most of the time I [see] films, they always [use] actors and actresses from L.A. There’s not really too many Chinese middle-aged actors and actresses here. So most of the time, we always have to find non-actors to do it. And I was very lucky. The lead of this film, he’s used to being in Chinese drama, so he was great. He was very professional and provided so much for the other actors.”
He said that many of his actors in the film are actually doctors in their daily lives. They were patient with learning acting on-set, he said, adding that he had to teach them what he wanted from their performances and how to be more natural on camera. He also said that several of the conversations he had with the actors off-screen, such as fears about being out late at night during the coronavirus pandemic were worked into the short film. Aside from the fear of the virus itself, the height of the pandemic was a time in which anti-Asian racism was at an extreme high.
The experiences of the pandemic also put the changing state of New York’s Chinatown in stark relief. In recent years, gentrification has accelerated in New York’s neighborhoods, and its effects on Chinatown have caused an existential concern for a place many people feel at home, especially for those who are Chinese immigrants. There has begun to be a movement to save Chinatown from the external threat of gentrification. Film has also become a way for filmmakers to preserve areas that are quickly changing or disappearing altogether. Chen’s film plays a part in this movement.
“So for example, the like the apartment I shot in, it’s a very old apartment and it’s just so traditional. [You don’t] see it anywhere else in New York…After a few months, [they] will renovate it. So yeah, we captured that moment, and we captured that in the film,” he said.
“The housing market in New York changed very fast. They keep renovating and a lot of very precious apartments just disappear,” he continued. “…I just feel lucky I can capture that and some other places. We also shot in a restaurant…but after we shot the film, I think a few weeks later, there’s a fire and it just disappeared. I haven’t talked to the owner yet, but I always [wanted] to share the film with him, just to let him see that we captured his space. We were very lucky to get his space, he was just so kind to us…The woman in the film, one of the women in the film [who allowed him to film in her apartment], she used to have a very big dancing club in New York, in Midtown, and she [was] the owner of that club. And she told me there [were] so many international dancers. And it [was] the biggest Chinese club in Manhattan at that time. And because of the pandemic, she [had] to shut down the club.”
The woman’s efforts to try to stay creative and support the arts is why Chen thinks she was “so supportive” of his film. But he added how New York is continuing to erode old establishments, such as the dancing hall he did shoot in.
“We’re not sure if it will still be there in the next few years,” he said. “…[These sites] are just so unique and it feels sad they’re being renovated and turned into something us. I’m very lucky to capture that…I just feel like film can capture that moment and what it used to be.”
He said he captured a similar feeling of change in his prior work, adding that the feeling of seeing how a place used to be is “something I feel very interested [in].”
Chen said that he hopes that viewers can get a sense of what it’s like to find home away from home.
“…I’m lucky I can get a chance to go home whenever I feel like I want, right, but for a lot of Chinese immigrants who live in New York maybe never get a chance to go back home or it takes them so long to get a chance to go home. It’s a very different situation,” he said, adding that the feeling of leaving your country and traditions behind can be tough. He hoped this film could share his culture with viewers.
“[W]hat I want the audience to get after they watch the films [is] how they feel about immigrants and how they feel about what they want living here, living abroad and living far away from their original family and…living abroad…we have to sacrifice so much to do that kind of [life]…I also want to make other artists, not Chinese…maybe look at our culture differently…Everyone has a different story.
A New Year’s Dance is still in the process of finding distribution. One of Chen’s other films, A New Apartment, is available at Film Shortage. Watch the trailer for A New Year’s Dance below.