Oliver Lin’s short film “To Add Oil” interrogates identity and duty
Today, we’re incredibly excited to be launching TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s “New Creatives” initiative, a series that seeks to highlight up-and-coming Taiwanese/Taiwanese American artists in various fields of creative artistry. Our first guest is Oliver Lin, a Taiwanese filmmaker and senior at the Ringling College of Art and Design studying film. Oliver grew up in Taiwan and came across video editing and cinematography at a young age, an event that ultimately ignited his interest in understanding how videos and films are put together.
While he dabbles in a variety of different media and explores a number of themes, Oliver particularly enjoys making films that incorporate aspects of his home country, Taiwan. The primary focus of this interview was his short film “To Add Oil” (“加油” in Mandarin), a ~15 minute vignette about a Taiwanese ex-military conscript named Will who attempts to flee from his responsibilities to his family by escaping to the beach for a day with his friend, Jay.
With that, I am proud to present an interview with Oliver Lin, lightly edited for clarity and length.
Alyssa: Could you tell me a little about the making of the film? What inspired this gem of a film that delves into friendships, family, and interpersonal conflict?
Oliver: Since coming to film school, it’s been a dream of mine to go back to Taiwan and shoot a narrative short about the people that I grew up with. In terms of the theme, I wanted to depict the underdog mentality of Taiwan and how, in terms of the geopolitics of being Taiwanese, you’re put in this position where you feel as though not a lot of people recognize Taiwan as a country. I was making this film at a point when a lot of my friends were being called to do their mandatory military service and as they were coming in and out, they told me about their experiences.
A: I love that you set this film in Taiwan. Tell us about these beautiful locations you chose to feature.
O: We filmed all around the northeast of Taiwan. For example, the beach scenes were filmed in the Tamsui area. On our first day, we went from Tianmu to the Yuanshan district, then we went to Tamsui, and then we ended up somewhere else in New Taipei City for the ending scene. The crew and I made a conscious decision to showcase Taiwan and its different environments. So we started off with the city, [where] you can see the highways intertwining and small alleyways. Then suddenly, in 10, 20 minutes you can be [among] mountains or [by] the ocean.
A: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to reflect the experiences of your friends in your film. The actors in “To Add Oil” were all wonderful and so authentic. Can you share a little more about them?
O: They’re actually both my friends. In terms of the character Jay, I’ve known [the actual Jay] since seventh grade, so I grew up with him. He’s always been such a nice person in that he’s always been willing to be in any of my films. Will, on the other hand, is a theatre major, a trained actor. He studied theatre throughout university, and now he’s in London, pursuing his career in theatre.
A: After watching “To Add Oil”, I noticed that the film contrasts scenes of what Will believes to be a sense of “freedom” with other scenes representing “restriction” or “boundaries.” Why do you think that these issues are significant in terms of portrayal in film, and what do you believe the line to be between individual freedoms and following a predetermined “plan”?
At the end of the day, I believe that everyone should sort out their own immediate problems before attempting to please others.
O: In the beach scene, especially, I was interested in showing that for a lot of people in Taiwan, as well as in other Asian cultures, their parents have a pre-ordained plan for them to end up in the States studying and [ultimately] finding a job. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of the fact that that in and of itself is a little bit out of date because it’s gotten a lot harder to stay in the States long-term, especially if you don’t have American citizenship. So with these two characters, I never wanted to explain whether or not they had citizenship, but more so the societal pressures they feel. In terms of where the line is drawn between personal freedom and pleasing your parents, I personally have been fortunate enough to have family and friends who have always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do in life. On the other hand, I also understand that there’s an importance in Taiwanese culture of pleasing your parents and doing what’s best for the family. At the end of the day, I believe that everyone should sort out their own immediate problems before attempting to please others.
A: Do you personally relate more to Will or Jay? Did you intend for the audience to empathize with one character over the other?
O: I would say I relate more to Will currently because as I’ve started to apply for jobs as well as speak to people who have a better understanding of the U.S. immigration policies… the future is looking very bleak in terms of being able to stay here. In that way, I think that eventually, I might end up in Will’s position: suddenly being back home [in Taiwan] and then having to create a new identity for myself. Then again, I can also relate with Jay in the sense of somehow viewing the U.S. as simply a financial opportunity, which is exemplified by the part of the film where he states that he is going to “slave away at a corporate job.” I think that a lot of the young people I know have this mentality where they know that the pay is much better in the U.S. I think that’s really up to the audience [on who they empathize with], especially the ones who either are Taiwanese/Taiwanese American or have friends who are Taiwanese.
A: Filmmakers always hope their film resonates with broader audiences. But, did you have a particular intended audience whom you wanted your message to resonate with?
O: For sure, my intended audience would include Taiwanese Americans, but also Taiwanese individuals who have had the privilege of being able to study abroad, whether it’s in the West or anywhere else outside of Taiwan for university. I also wanted to make sure that I was able to make a film that could be understood by a Western audience where we have these characters speaking essentially fluent English. Yet they jump in and out of Mandarin because that’s what me and my friends do. That’s obviously not the best because we’re jumbling two languages together, but I wanted to show that these types of people exist in the world, and they’re really not that different from young twenty-year-olds in the U.S.
A: I observed that throughout the film, there’s this tension between the two characters’ different ideas of home and what defines success. A lot of Taiwanese children born today also have this “blueprint” for the future concocted by their parents that’s deeply rooted in this ideal dream of immigration to the U.S. for their children’s educational and economic development. What does the American Dream mean to you, and how do you think it can be both beneficial and detrimental to immigrant/minority success?
As a member of the Taiwanese community, it is imperative that we appreciate what we have in Taiwan and be able to see that it is indeed good enough; you can chase your dreams there as well as anywhere else in the world.
O: To me, the American Dream means being able to explore the specific industry that I want to work in and learn from those in the U.S. who are interested in the same things. The film industry in the U.S. is much larger and more long-lived in comparison to the film industry in Taiwan. I would say that this idea of the American Dream is detrimental because there has always been this [imbued] mentality that Taiwan was never good enough, especially in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Even today, we’re still constantly being told that our best future is somewhere in the West when the reality is that we could return home to Taiwan and there would still be plenty of opportunities for us to succeed. To highlight an example of this mentality, after we filmed the beach scene, one of my crew members told me about his experience attending college in New York before eventually returning home to Taiwan, similar to Will’s character in the film. He discussed the ubiquity of the expectation that one’s child should stay and work in the U.S. post-graduation, as though the U.S. could offer so much more than Taiwan. As a member of the Taiwanese community, it is imperative that we appreciate what we have in Taiwan and be able to see that it is indeed good enough; you can chase your dreams there as well as anywhere else in the world.
A: The title of your short film “To Add Oil” is interesting in light of its dual meaning both in Mandarin and in English. Can you talk about your choice of title and what you believe the meaning of the phrase to be in the context of the film?
O: To me, the phrase “jia you” (加油) has always been very interesting as words of encouragement in Mandarin, but when translated into English it means “To Add Oil”. It’s a phrase that you constantly hear. It’s the one term where you can be in any situation in Taiwan and people will tell you, “jia you!”. It fits the film because I’ve always thought that there’s this fire burning within our protagonist because of this unforgivable act that he’s committed. As the story progresses, we see that more things are being thrown into this internal emotional fire, untilt we arrive at this climax when he just can’t contain it anymore. Essentially, too much oil has been added and now the fire is completely out of control. I wanted to include the Chinese words as well because I wanted them to act as words of encouragement for both Will’s character and for my friends or any other young Taiwanese people who are in similar situations. The words “jia you” are meant to tell them “don’t give up.”
A: That burning oil imagery and the intensity of emotions projected in the film feels quite palpable–you’ve done a remarkable job with the story-telling. Also, It’s incredible to see that your career has been highly motivated by the people you know. Have any of your friends watched the film? If so, how did they react to it?
O: I’ve shown this film to a lot of my friends from Taiwan. They seemed to really like it, but I’m not sure if their reactions are biased since they can relate to these characters so well! It’s been cool to see my friends’ reactions to putting people we knew in high school into a film and having other people watch it.
A: You’ve talked a lot about how your experiences growing up in Taiwan shaped the making of “To Add Oil”. How do you think your Taiwanese or Taiwanese American identity has influenced the way in which you create films/the types of themes that you choose to explore in your work?
O: As an artist, I think that what really influences me is the place I call home, and that would be Taiwan. For some reason, every time I go back to Taiwan– and ever since coming to university in the States, that time has been limited. I always want to showcase the place where I’m from; I want to showcase the people who inhabit my home as well as the vibrant culture that exists there. I don’t solely make films about Taiwan, but I always find myself very interested in wanting to tell these kinds of stories. Throughout the years, I find that while people are becoming more and more aware of Taiwan, they don’t really know how great of a place it is.
A: Lastly, do you have any other details that you’d like to add about yourself, your film, or any upcoming projects that you would like to share?
O: For this film, the crew was really small: around ten people. I had to enlist the help of my two elder brothers, who essentially took on roles in the filmmaking process without any payment. I didn’t pay the actors either. I think it was known from the start that this was a passion project. Everyone there had some sort of relationship to Taiwanese American identity. It was really cool to see these scenes play out and have crew members approach me to say, “that’s so relatable.” They’d all been in that position of having to study in the States and then going back to Taiwan. Overall, I’m very grateful for the crew I had, as well as the cast. What made it such a memorable moment for me was that we all shared so much pride for the place that we call home. If this short film did well in any way, it would be showcasing our home. And I think that’s the most we could ask for.
In terms of other projects, I’m currently writing and acting. Hopefully, I’m able to come up with a feature-length story that we could shoot in Taiwan. Other than that, I’ve just been dealing with the stresses of looking for a job and hoping to stay in the U.S. for the long term if that’s possible. However, I also know that the Visa system is very complex, so the odds aren’t on my side, but I’ll be doing my best either way.
A: Thank you for your time today!
O: Thank you!
After the film’s festival run which is set to end in January 2023, “To Add Oil” will be made available online through platforms such as Vimeo. Check out Oliver’s social media accounts and his portfolio linked below.
To Add Oil Trailer:
To Add Oil Instagram page:
Oliver Lin’s website:
Alyssa Lee served as Johns Hopkins TASA president and is currently leading the TaiwaneseAmerican.org “New Creatives” Initiative. She is currently studying Molecular and Cellular Biology and History of Art.