David Lee
by David Lee

The Versatile Actress and Producer 
Sylvia Chang is one of the most influential, and arguably most prolific, female artists in Chinese Cinema, who wears the many hats of actress, writer, director, producer and at one time, also radio DJ and singer! Throughout her four decades-long career, she has constantly moved between making movies in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and in recent years, has also starred in Chinese films, as well as films shot in Singapore and Malaysia.

She’s most popularly known as an actress, having starred in more than 90 films since the 1970’s, garnering acclaim with multiple Golden Horse and Hong Film Award nominations and wins. Showcasing her versatility, Chang’s actress credits include action comedy such as the Aces Go Places series of films, as well as more serious dramatic fare, such as My Favorite Season (1985) and Immortal Love (1986). Chang also starred in one of the three short films of In Our Time (1982), the omnibus that is widely credited for having launched the Taiwan New Cinema movement.  

Despite not having a formal film education, she worked with and learnt from some of the top directors early in her film career, starring in the films of King Hu, Lee Han Hsiang and Lo Wei, and helping Edward Yang make his first feature That Day At The Beach (1982) as lead actress and producer. Since Chang wasn’t considered the most beautiful among actresses of her generation in comparison to the likes of Lin Ching Hsia and Lin Fengjiao, and since there weren’t many male filmmakers who would write good scripts for women in this traditionally male-dominated industry, the seed was laid for Chang to embark on the journey of writing and directing her own films so as to create more substantial roles for women in filmmaking.

The Writer Director 

1) Siao Yu
The films written and directed by Sylvia Chang tend to be more character driven and focus on the intricate roles that women play in urban societies. In Siao Yu (1995), a film that she co-wrote with Ang Lee, the title character - played by Rene Liu - is forced into the awkward situation of entering into a false marriage with an old American man just to be able to gain a Green Card and stay in the USA with her Chinese boyfriend. 

As the character of Siao Yu develops in the film, her compassion grows for the lonely, cynical, old man and the crude, unfair treatment of her Chinese boyfriend also becomes more apparent, forcing her to make a pivotal choice at the film’s cliff-hanger ending. There is an underlying feminist message that women should be given the right to determine their own future rather than following the will and footsteps of their men.

2) Tonight Nobody Goes Home

Similarly, in her next feature film, the dramedy Tonight Nobody Goes Home (1996), which Chang co-wrote with Ang Lee’s brother, Lee Khan, the female characters of a mother (Grace Guei), daughter (Rene Liu), and illegitimate lover (Kuei-Mei Yang) are all better off when they bravely step out of their comfort zones and become independent women. The only submissive female character in the film, the sister-in-law, suffers as a result of being totally supportive of her philandering husband.  

3) Tempting Heart

The feminist message and themes of love and relationships in modern society continue in other films directed by Sylvia Chang, such as the semi-autobiographical Tempting Heart (1999) and 20 30 40. What is amazing about Chang the director is her eye for discovering acting talents, such as Rene Liu and Angelica Lee, and her fine balancing act in handling comedy and serious drama. 

"A Lifetime of Work in One Notebook: Sylvia Chang Special Edition". Created by Moleskine for The Hong Kong Film Festival

Being such an influential industry veteran, and ever-supportive champion of talented young filmmakers, it was a natural step when she took over the role of Chairperson of the executive committee of the Golden Horse Film Festival from Hsiao-Hsien Hou, to lead the most important film event in the Taiwan and Chinese film industry. Despite her busy schedule in running the film festival, Chang continues to be active in filmmaking, most recently directing her latest feature Murmur of the Hearts (2015), which was a critical success. Even at the age of 63, and after more than four decades in the industry, Sylvia Chang shows no sign of slowing down and we can look forward to seeing more films from her, both in front of and behind the camera.