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.”
Which is an understatement of dramatic proportions. Apple broke box-office records in Taiwan, China (the highest-grossing Taiwanese film ever), Singapore and Hong Kong, where it became the most successful Chinese film of all time, surpassing the Stephen Chow martial arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle. Chen notes that during filming the cast and crew were confident they had a hit on their hands. “My mum would ask me how it was going and I’d say it’s going to be awesome, even before we saw the rough edit. We could all feel the vibe. Still we were astonished that it did so well.”
Chen had already appeared in three feature films – her first, Hear Me (2009), in which she plays a hearing-impaired swimmer, brought her a Golden Horse nomination for best newcomer (an award won by her Apple co-star Ko Chen-tung last year) – and thus was the veteran among a gaggle of novice actors. Lead actor Ko, for instance, was a 20-year-old first-timer and, as Chen says with affection, “very childish”. They bonded during rehearsals over “silly card games, where the loser gets slapped on the forehead or whacked on the soles of the feet”. Fears that her seniority would set her apart quickly diminished.
"I was very touched by the special relationship [in You Are the Apple of My Eye]. Ching-Teng cherished Chia-Yi. Not a single guy has treated me so well!"
They filmed for a month and a half, mostly in auteur Ko’s boyhood stomping ground of Changhua county, and it was a happy set. “Ko Ching-teng is a very generous and supportive director, always complimenting and encouraging us. We had a lot of fun; it was more like playing than work, especially as he would pull all these tricks on us.”
Apple’s success has propelled Chen to hot property status in the industry, not to mention poster girl for countless teenage boys and girls around the region. The actress’ gratitude to Ko extends beyond an undoubtedly welcome boost to her career, though. She explains. “It was such a wonderful film and character. I was very touched by this special relationship, this devotion between two people over such a long time. It’s a feeling that doesn’t just last for a day or two but changes both their fates. Ching-teng cherished Chia-yi. It’s a very pure kind of love.”
Is there someone like that in her own life? Chen smiles. “Er, no. Not a single guy has treated me so well!” (She says later, still light-heartedly, that she believes people should “always have time for romance, but the timing isn’t happening for me at the moment”; she remains hopeful though.) “Perhaps you can only have this kind of love in your teenage years. Bringing this relationship to life made me feel very loved too and it prompted me to think I should cherish myself more.”
Alhough acting was not her initial passion, it is a role Chen is making her own. “It changes you,” she says simply. “Actors will tell you that the best part of their job is getting to be other people, and now I realise how true this is. It allows you to see things from others’ point of view, to meet a lot of people, to learn from their life experiences. You may be only acting, but it’s still happening, it’s part of your life and it broadens your understanding, makes you consider your possibilities, what you can become.”
Did her parents push her along or pull her back from this career path? “At first my dad was worried,” she admits. “For the first two years I made very little money. He saw my friends with good jobs, while I couldn’t support myself – he had to support me. But after my Golden Horse nomination for Hear Me he told me he was proud.” Her mother was supportive from the outset, believing young people should chase their dreams. “My mum’s awesome,” she says.
Chen’s positive, chirpy nature has been honed by her current profession and eight years spent abroad. “I admire Western culture. The American education system encourages you to have an opinion, to be more active and open-minded. I like that.” She breezes on: “The US really accepts other cultures. It was fascinating to meet so many people from other countries and cultures when I was there.” Eyes shining, she ticks off the nationalities she interacted with. “I didn’t meet any Europeans though; I really want to go to Europe.”
"For the first two years as an actress I made very little money. My dad had to support me. But after my Golden Horse nomination he told me he was proud."
A European vacation isn’t on the cards quite yet. Chen is too busy. Her latest film, The Soul of Bread, had opened that week in Taiwan and she was awaiting the reviews. A rom-com with the inevitable love triangle, it is directed by newcomers Sean Kao and Lin Chun-yang. She plays a simple Taiwan country girl who dreams (ironically given Chen’s above wish) of going to Paris before she marries her longtime beau, an apprentice baker. The arrival of a handsome Taiwanese-French television presenter in search of the perfect bread recipe complicates the picture.
Her next role – shooting at the time of this interview – will be more of a stretch for the young actress. In this historical drama from Spider Lilies director Zero Chou, Chen plays a Taiwanese geisha. “I really liked the script; it’s set on an island in ancient times and there are geishas and pirates,” she enthuses, fired up about having to sing, dance and play traditional musical instruments on screen. “It will be very different [from Apple].”
Adding to Chen’s excitement is the release of an album later this year (it is due out in 2013). She hopes to pen most of the material herself – her pastimes are relaxing with friends, going to movies and karaoke (“you should try karaoke in Taiwan, it’s really fun”) and writing poems, lyrics and music – envisaging that it will be “quite funky, not so much pop”. One of her idols is English singer-songwriter Adele. “She’s amazing. I cannot sing as well as her, but I hope I can carry the same kind of emotion.”
As for acting, Chen is up for Best Actress honours at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong this month and appears to have the Chinese-speaking film world at her feet. Asked to name three directors she’d like to work with, she is surprised: “What, only three?” The first name she settles on is Peter Chan. Her dream is to act alongside Maggie Cheung and/or Andy Lau – “I’m so in love with Andy Lau.” She sighs. “Go to Europe, release an album, do more movies – that’s enough dreams for now. I think I’m being very greedy already.”
Photography: Joshua Lin of Red Purple Studio, Taipei
Styling: Kenneth Wong
Hair: Jovi of Flux
Makeup: Miu Miu Shen