One of the most anticipated Taiwanese films of 2021 is “American Girl,” a story about a teenage girl moving to Taipei from Los Angeles during the SARS epidemic in 2003. Directed by Fiona Roan, the film was produced by alumnus Clifford Miu ’11 and stars a current TAS student, Caitlin Fang ’24. “American Girl” clearly speaks to those who grew up straddling two worlds but also has more widespread appeal. At the 58th Golden Horse Awards on November 27, “American Girl” was nominated for seven awards and came away with best new director, best new performer, and best cinematography. The film premieres on Friday, December 3.
About “American Girl”
“[American Girl] is a coming-of-age story for a girl. She’s Taiwanese. She’s American, and dealing with all those things,” explains Clifford. The movie's namesake is 13 year-old Fen, who moves from Los Angeles to Taipei in 2003. Fen is played by Caitlin Fang ’24 in her film debut. Caitlin has attended TAS since kindergarten.
“My mom saw the audition ad on Facebook, and she encouraged me to give it a try. So I sent in a self taped [audition], and later I was asked to audition in person,” explains Caitlin. “Though I have never been in the theater program, I have joined a couple of musicals [at TAS].”
Of her talent, Clifford says, “She’s never acted in film before, but when we met her, she was already a girl of such taste and skill.”
Clifford and director Fiona Roan, who had collaborated before on the short film “Jie Jie”, started work on “American Girl” in 2018. “Very early on, when it was just an idea or a concept, a synopsis we would share over dinner, I was already involved,” reflects Clifford. “The story is semi-based on [Fiona’s] experiences as a teenager. Whereas ‘Jie Jie’ was about a mother and two daughters migrating to the US, this story is about that family coming back to Taiwan, which I think is the story of many third culture kids who went to the US and then came back. This is relatable to a lot of us.”
“American Girl” won three out of seven nominated awards at the Golden Horse Awards, which are widely considered the Oscars of Chinese-language films. Two awards were for best new director and best cinematography. “American Girl” was also nominated (but did not win) for best leading actress (2), best original screenplay, and best narrative feature.
Caitlin came away from the Golden Horse Awards with best new performer in this, her film debut. Of her work, Caitlin said, “The whole filming process was new to me. The most challenging part would be the long hours of shooting everyday while also having to catch up with school work. The most rewarding part was being able to meet a lot of great people that gave me a lot of inspiration and being able to see myself on the big screen.” Though Caitlin hasn’t thought about future plans in college, she would like to continue acting in the future.
The film also won the non-competition Golden Horse Audience Choice Award and the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) Prize, which aims to promote film-art and young upcoming filmmakers.
Clifford credits getting his start in film and his success in his career in large part to his support from TAS, which he attended from Grade 1 to graduation. “A handful of people from my year were all taking Dr. Carpenter’s Contemporary Writers in Film class, and we decided to put together a showcase of films. We held it in the auditorium and then the small theater. It was a way to show people what film was, working together and creating things in an audio-visual sense. That’s how we started the Formosa Film Festival. My counselor was Mr. Lowman, and he encouraged me to look at NYU for film.”
After Clifford graduated from TAS in 2011, he studied film at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He took a gap year to work on a film in Taiwan with Martin Scorsese called “Silence” (2016), and after starting out as a production assistant in New York City, Clifford moved onto working as an assistant director on films in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Clifford decided to focus on film production in order to bring a wider variety of stories into the world. “My partner and I have a production company called Bering Pictures. Our goal is to make diverse short-film content. When I was at NYU, I saw a lot of short films, scripts, and stories that weren’t made. Oftentimes, it’s money, but it’s also not being able to assemble a crew, find a location, and people to execute it. We want to help get films made and see more important films out there.”
The work of a producer can be more diverse than what people think. “Producing really means getting the film made. If we’re filming a scene at a restaurant, I would need to do everything from finding all the help and the extras, buying ingredients for the meals, to securing the rights for the song we want to feature.” One of the short films Clifford helped make was by the director of “American Girl”, Fiona Roan. “‘Jie Jie’ was set around 1997, when a lot of Taiwanese and Hong Kong people started immigrating to the US. It is a prequel of sorts to ‘American Girl’.”
Clifford and Fiona secured a 12 million NT grant from the Taiwan Ministry of Culture to produce “American Girl”. “Only when I started working as a producer did I understand how much the training at TAS of giving presentations and writing would help. When you pitch and apply for grants, people don’t understand the amount of writing that goes into it.”
“I owe a lot to TAS and look back fondly to my time there. I want to thank everyone for their support,” said Clifford. “For a lot of people, once you graduate from TAS and you start working in bilingual scenarios, you realize how important a lot of that TAS training was. I want to thank a lot of my teachers. I was this one guy who wanted to do film, and everyone was supportive of me and for Caitlin too.”