Feng-I Fiona Roan on Jiejie and Sisterhood
BY OLIVIA ARMSTRONG
Feng-I Fiona Roan wanted to explore sisterhood through a lens she hasn’t seen on screen before: the Chinese church. The Taiwanese-American writer-director attended the American Film Institute where she filmed her graduate thesis Jiejie in just eight days, before submitting to 2018 HBO APA Visionaries Short Film Competition. The second annual showcase provides Asian Pacific American creatives the opportunity to feature their work on HBO’s streaming platforms. “Jiejie,” which translates from Mandarin to “sister” follows young Fen, who’s embarrassed by her un-American look and takes matters into her own hands — fueling a fight between her and her younger sister at church.
Here, Roan discusses how the 12-minute short came to fruition and other APA narratives she’s exploring.
HBO: How did you get into filmmaking?
Feng-I Fiona Roan: I studied Chinese literature and Chinese opera in undergrad and that’s when I was introduced to screenplays. I’ve always loved movies, so when those worlds collided, it really clicked for me: I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter. I tried to get into grad school as a screenwriter but was rejected so I reapplied as a director and was accepted.
HBO: Why the story of Jiejie? How did you find out about the competition?
Feng-I Fiona Roan: We had to shoot in LA and I knew I wanted to create a Mandarin-speaking film. So with that combination of limitations I had, I thought about my childhood experiences and, because of the short film format, I knew I needed a story that was contained in a day or two. I had never seen the Chinese-American church on screen before so I thought that was interesting. The story really spread out from the idea of the church.
A friend told me about the APA Visionaries Short Film Competition. Jiejie was already completed and my friend told me the competition theme was “home” and it felt like my movie exactly so I submitted.
HBO: How did you cast this film?
Feng-I Fiona Roan: It was very difficult. The age range we needed didn’t have many trained actors to choose from. Also, a lot of Asian parents don’t train their kids to act. We went to an after-school program where they teach their kids dance and performance.
I ended up having about ten to fifteen options for my lead, but accents were a big problem when we were casting. Even though all spoke Mandarin, they all had different accents. We had to work to smooth a lot of that out, in addition to general chemistry reading. Overall, I think it’s really hard to cast a family because they have to feel like they know each other but we rehearsed a lot and I thought they did a really great job.
HBO: What’s next for you?
Feng-I Fiona Roan: My next project is the new original series Lady Luck, co-written with Amy Tsang. Our pilot got into Sundance Episodic Lab Round 1 and we’re really excited about it. It deals with gambling addiction within Asian Pacific American community. It’s also a family drama based on Amy’s family story. It’s like Jiejie — single mother, two daughters — but set in a casino with supernatural elements.
Feng-I Fiona Roan is a writer and director living in Los Angeles.