Interview: Moneyboys director CB Yi on overcoming obstacles and the inspiration behind his visual aesthetic

As the Taiwan Film Festival in Australia continues to screen virtually for the country, our own Peter Gray contacted director CB Yi, whose film Moneyboys (read our review here) has been one of the festival’s premiere titles, to discuss the film’s origins and tackling the risky subject matter.

How did the project originate?

When I studied a year abroad, in Beijing, I had friends who were acting students.  One of my friends became a sex worker to help pay his mother’s medical bills. I was moved by his self-sacrifice. I realized that many sex workers originated from the countryside and moved to big cities to secretly sell their bodies to their families’ advantage. That made me wonder: “What does a person actually live for in my homeland?” Honoring your parents, ancestors, and ultimately the “mother state” is Confucianism’s answer – this is what we call “filial piety”. The word “tradition” is used similarly throughout Austria and Europe. And even if few individuals nowadays claim to live for family or state traditions, we often cling to ideals that impede us from being happy.

How did the film come to be a joint production between Taiwan and Europe?

I casted two years in China and met some empathetic and talented actors that touched by the story, decided to support our project. One day, a few actors called me personally saying they could not be a part of the project due to the advice of their managers. It was pretty much clear for me why. That was around 7 months before the shooting. The reason is, that Kai Ko was always one of my favorite candidates for the main role of Fei. And I was aware that Taipei City has a mixture of different cultural influences that can be good for our international production. We also got the financial support of the Taipei Film Commission. Luckily.

Did you face any hurdles given the film’s subject matter?

I have spent more than 8 years to accomplish Moneyboys because of some hurdles. As a director you cannot simply enforce your ideas, but need to adapt your vision in accordance to the situation you find yourself in. Moneyboys faced circumstances where we had to make big decisions within few hours but we got used to it.

What was the research process like?

During my research trip in 2009 for my first screenplay Ducks – a story about the balance of power between rich female Chinese customers and three call boys – I made contact with a sociologist who had carried out a study for the WHO for which he interviewed over 2000 male sex workers to ask about their careers. He introduced me to some male sex workers during my research process which gave me some insight into their profession.

The film has an interesting visual aesthetic. Was there any inspiration behind that?
The camera in the movie has a sort of intrusive role. It follows Fei like the police to his most private moments and in the long shots exposes him constantly to the gaze of the viewer. I’m interested in the sensation of being exposed – to life, to the perceptions of other people or to the eye of the camera. The long takes are supposed to pull the viewer into the mind-set of an observer – yet, that of a loving observer hopefully.

In my view the still and distanced shots are a better way to actually encounter a character. When you stand too close to somebody you cannot really see the person anymore. Which is probably why we tend to hurt each other most when relationships are too close: We are too consumed with the immediate slights and fights, that we forget to see and understand the other as a person with a history and family. We need some distance to truly engage with each other.

Often a scene that uses different shots and cuts is like a conversation where you constantly look away to avoid the intimacy that occurs if you gaze steadily into another person’s eyes. The rapid cuts may get you interested in the action for a short period of time, but you aren’t able to truly connect with the characters. What I want is to give space to that intimacy of connection. I think it’s exciting to arrange the characters in a long take and have them interact in such a way that various views and shades of interpretation arise during the course of the scene. That makes it possible for visual dynamics and scenic variations to develop without the emotional continuity of the scene being interrupted. My intention is to focus attention not so much on one individual and his decisions but on the network of shifting positions and relationships which surrounds the individual. In a long take small changes in the distance between the individuals can create very different moods, exercising subtle power or triggering erotic attraction, shame or fear.

What message are you hoping to convey with this film?

At the world premiere in Cannes, on the stage, I felt the wish to address all the Feis in this world: “Before you devote yourself to others, before you sacrifice yourself for your family, for your friends and for your beloved ones, you have to take care of yourself. And you have to love yourself truly first.” I hope to be selected at the Cannes or any other Film festival means that there are people out there who understand why we spend so many years to tell a story about
people like Fei. To be given a platform to present this film gives us the opportunity to encourage these hidden heroes, to show our solidarity with them. That we care about them and that we understand them.

Moneyboys is screening as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival in Australia, which is being presented virtually between September 16th and 30th, 2021.  For more information head to the official page.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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