Filmmaker Arvin Chen found his inspiration in the comment of a forty-something gay Taiwanese friend: A lot of gay men in Taiwan come out of the closet but later decide to live as straight married men.
"Taiwan is pretty open culturally," said Chen, 35. But sometimes conservative Chinese family structure trumps sexual identity, and coming out in Taiwan is different from coming out in the U.S., where a key step is telling parents.
"It's not the same in Taiwan and, I think, in a lot of Asia," the U.S.-born Chen said by phone from Taipei, where he now lives. "You come out to your friends and your co-workers. Even if you're totally out, you don't necessarily tell your parents."
The phenomenon inspired Chen's often whimsical film "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" which opens Friday in Monterey Park. The comedy centers on a quiet gay optometrist, Weichung, who is married with a young son. He begins to question his relationship with his wife, then at his sister's engagement party, he runs into a wedding photographer who happens to be his gay friend from before his marriage. The meeting inspires Weichung to seek true love.
The film, however, isn't just about coming out. The roundelay explores the romantic longings and aspirations of Weichung's wife, his neurotic sister and even his old friend, who is married to a lesbian.
"I originally thought it would be more of a melodrama or a tragedy very early on," said Chen, who is straight. "It wasn't until I started thinking about the side characters that I realized it could be a funny movie and have an element of sweetness to it."
Born in Boston of Taiwanese parents, Chen grew up in Foster City, about 20 miles south of San Francisco. He attended UC Berkeley, where he majored in architecture, but his career path changed when he saw the 2000 Taiwanese family drama "Yi Yi" by Edward Yang, who won the director's prize at Cannes for the film.
"I loved that movie so much," Chen said. "I found a way through family friends to contact Edward Yang. I was just asking him: Should I go to film school? What should I do?"
Yang took Chen under his wing. Before his death in 2007, Yang asked Chen to come to Taipei to be his assistant. "It was the first time I had ever lived outside the country," Chen said. "I basically was an apprentice."
Chen eventually returned to the U.S. and attended USC's School of Cinematic Arts. He decided to establish his career in Taiwan instead of Hollywood because "trying to be a young filmmaker in L.A. is so tough," he said. "Everyone makes movies in L.A.. so you start to feel a little overwhelmed and intimidated. Taiwan was this exotic place, this foreign place where I could find something a little bit more inspiring."
He made his award-winning student film, "Mei," in Taiwan in 2006 and released his first feature, the popular romantic comedy "Au Revoir Taipei," in 2010.
"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" opened last year in Taiwan and has played the international festival circuit, but it has not screened in mainland China because of the gay characters.
"I didn't think it was controversial," Chen said. "There were distributors in China who were wanting to buy it, but we couldn't pass the censorship board."