Film has helped Rina B. Tsou establish a sense of identity. Born to a Taiwanese father and a Filipina mother, she lived with her grandmother in Manila up until the age of nine, as her father’s work took her parents to various destinations around the world.

But with crime rampant in the Philippine capital, and the political situation unstable, in 1997 the family reunited in Taiwan, where Tsou’s parents had decided to settle.

She adapted to life in her new home quickly, she says, but distance also allowed her to view the Philippines in a new light. “Standing on a different point helped me to see and feel things which I had never known before,” she says.

When, in 2014, Typhoon Haiyan caused widespread devastation across the Philippines, Tsou and some friends decided to film a documentary about the nation’s recovery efforts. This trip, she says, allowed her to see a side of the Philippines she had never considered before – and inevitably she compared the two countries in which she had lived.

The main differences, she says, were in people. “They are relatively friendly to strangers in the Philippines,” says Tsou. “Due to a fear of strangers in Taiwan, although we live so close to each other, the distances between us seem further.”

As a filmmaker, Tsou has continued to explore the nature of these two communities, most notably in her 2016 short Arnie, which featured as part of International Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival last year and has been travelling to film festivals around the world ever since.

Arnie follows the life of a Filipino fisherman in Taiwan who – despite years spent on the island – only has a faint connection with local people and the land they call home.

Director Rina B. Tsou. Photo: Handout
Director Rina B. Tsou. Photo: Handout

Arnie and his friends usually linger only in the harbor zone of Taipei, never wandering much further than their local convenience stores. “It seems we live in parallel universes,” says Tsou.

There are an estimated 620,000 migrant workers in Taiwan, more than half coming from East and Southeast Asian countries. Despite the fact that this diaspora is growing each year, the distance between the migrants and the local community remains, Tsou says. But she hopes the reaction to her film can help to make some difference to the situation.

“I feel I am like duckweed floating on the water. Sometimes I quite enjoy switching identities at different places, but somehow I still feel there is something missing in my heart”

The filmmaker says she wanted to build a bridge between nations by showing that Arnie’s life struggles are universal. “It’s a story about Arnie, and an ordinary person’s daily life – which is just like yours and mine,” she says. “I hope audiences can understand Arnie and his friends more by watching the film.”

Tsou is now working on her first full-length feature film, which she says will explore similar situations to Arnie’s – and indeed her own.

“I feel I am like duckweed floating on the water,” she says. “Sometimes I quite enjoy switching identities at different places, but somehow I still feel there is something missing in my heart.”

Tsou believes that – as with the characters in her film – what’s missing is a sense of belonging. Working in a foreign country and being separated from their families, many migrant workers do not feel a sense of “home” in Taiwan. Every night we see Arnie looking at pamphlets from the Philippines and wishing he could go back to his family and live in a big house.

What has helped Tsou is her work. “Every project has represented a part of me,” she says. “My films have helped me become who I am now – this is me.”