Michelle Chen: School's Out!
She’s not quite the innocent student of her hit film, You Are the Apple of My Eye, but Michelle Chen plays cute by nature, albeit with an artsy, upbeat, intelligent edge. Jill Triptree travels to Taiwan to meet the young woman who has the Chinese film world at her feet
Michelle Chen, the sweet-faced actress worshipped by schoolboy Ko in You Are the Apple of My Eye - and thousands of young movie-goers who flocked to see this Taiwanese coming-of-age flick during its mammoth five-month run here – is far from a teen star. The eldest and most experienced actor in the Apple main cast, she will be 30 next year, but Chen’s management team is keen to milk her cute girl-next-door image for as long as they possibly can. No heavy ‘mature’ makeup or womanly gowns for our (Baccarat) cover shoot, held on a raw, rainy day on her home turf of Taipei.
Sultry screen star does not fit Chen anyway. She is an artsy California-educated young woman, short in stature, but warm of heart, open of mind and big in talent. As director (and popular novellist) Giddens Ko told her when casting her in the role of his real-life first (and everlasting) love, “There are many beautiful girls in the industry but not many who look like they could be a good student; you do.”
Chen first caught the director’s eye in a lift, after leaving a colleague’s house-warming party. They are both represented by Angie Chai’s company Idol Drama – Chai served as the film’s executive producer – but were not close before this chance encounter. Chen boldly admonished Ko for absent-mindedly picking his ear with a key, saying he’d hurt himself.
“He told me later that it was like being struck by lightning; he knew I was right for the part. He felt immediately nervous around me – and he’s never nervous – reminding him of his schooldays and his first love.” Ko cleared his casting choice with the real Shen Chia-yi, whose comment was that Chen made a prettier 16-year-old schoolgirl than she had.
Chen, for her part, had read Ko’s best-selling novel, The Girl We Chased Together in Those Years, in 2006, soon after her return to Taiwan. Following in the footsteps of her elder sister, young Michelle had attended high school and college in the US – she majored in marketing and fine arts at the University of Southern California, and then revised her career choice from painter to singer. But with the music industry in Taiwan in the doldrums, she was advised to try acting first.
With a few commercials under her belt, she was introduced to Chai and learned her craft in television dramas. While Chen had enjoyed Ko’s book, she never dreamt that one day she would play the bookwormish object of schoolboy desire. “I felt really honoured that he chose me,” she recalls. “But it was only after we finished shooting the movie that I realised how lucky I was.”