STEELE INTERVIEWS: Charlyne Yi [Paper Heart]

Paper Heart is a thoughtful, revolutionary and sweet examination of love. At the beginning of the film, 23-year-old Comedienne/ writer Charlyne Yi admits she does not know what love is and feels incapable of being in love. She says that she has never been in love.

“I haven’t been in that many relationships either for the reason of not feeling mutual about the person— them not liking me or me not liking them—or the idea of getting to know someone and not hating them in the end or it just not working out,” Yi elaborates. “Not even hate, it just doesn’t feel right. It takes so much time to realize that. I think when this idea occurred I was 18 and I was new to the world and I was like, “I don’t want to hit on people at bars.” I think it was just me scared of the world and having to dive in and meet strangers and meet them in a way that you are so comfortable that you can be yourself and to learn about them too and for them to be comfortable to a point where you either: A. feel the same way about them or B. have to grow apart and that’s kinda scary.”

Most likely, a lot of people can probably relate, including this critic, who has never been in true love [only unrequited] and is a decade older. This is why Paper Heart will move many people, hit a nerve, and win over audiences with its honesty.

“Do you believe in love?” Jake Johnson asks me during our sit down at Felt in Boston. “Do you believe in the ability to love? If this was an interview during Paper Heart, do you believe that there’s love?”

“Well, I’m pretty cynical about it now because I have this ex-boyfriend who broke up with me after two years and yet we’re still friends,” I explained. “It’s been eight years. We would have been good people to interview. Well, he’s an engineer so he doesn’t talk at all. He mimes things.”

“You’re not still in love with him are you?” Yi asks in a gentle tone.

“Yeah, I still love him,” I say. “It’s just this weird relationship and obviously he really cares about me. We go on dates. We do everything a married couple does except do anything intimate.”

“This is the best interview ever!” Johnson says excitedly while clapping his hands.

Yi takes her quest on the road to find all love-related answers. Her goal is to change the way she thinks. Johnson plays Nick [aka the director], someone whom Yi can confide in and someone who also can nudge her along here and there.

“It was weird because it was going to be a really small part but along the way we realized how essential this character was and we’re so lucky we had him,” Yi admits. “Otherwise, it would be a lot of me going [she uses a funny voice], “Ah, hey camera.” You know you’d never get any information or see the character growing.”

Interspersed in Yi’s pursuit for answers is a tender, evolving pseudo-relationship between Yi and all-around modest good guy Michael Cera, who in the film she meets at a party in Los Angeles. Cera tells Yi he’s seen her do stand-up and then asks someone about her saying she’s “mysterious.” Soon after the party, the two go on a first date. The budding romance is at times awkward but slow and gentle.

“There’s like 300 hours of footage for an hour and a half movie. I think I said the line, “So what’s going on with you and Mike?” probably no joke, 6,000 times in different takes,” Johnson stresses. “Because a lot of times we’d be in a beautiful location and [Nick] would say, “Let’s just do a scene.” And it would start with asking about Mike and where would it be in different points of the relationship so when they were editing it they could use any scene they wanted.”

A charming aspect of Paper Heart comes when Yi asks real people throughout the United States about love in its various modes. In Lubbock, TX, scientists literally explain the science of love: the biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, and mechanisms of the heart and brain that make a person feel like she or he is in love. Bikers in Oklahoma City explain their love/hate relationships, while in Las Vegas, Yi questions people at the quickie wedding chapels. At the L.A Zoo, she wants to film animals expressing love. Yi interviews older couples about their first dates.

“I think [Paper Heart] made me more hopeful in that sense,” Yi admits. “Love to me is doing the most boringest thing, like washing clothes with a person, and enjoying their company still and feeling the same way. And knowing all their faults and still accepting them and hopefully vice-versa.”

Yi then heads to Atlanta where in an adorable scene she talks to a group of rambunctious children about [icky] love and boyfriends and girlfriends. During an interview with interview with Sarah Baker, a romance novelist, the author explains the importance of HEA ending—happily ever after and states that one partner has to sacrifice for the other. Yi discusses divorce with a lawyer and judge in a family court and love and marriage with a gay New York couple.

During this entire exploratory trip, Yi has managed to IM Michael quite a bit and has gone on a few dates. At one point Yi says: “Nick I’m starting to really like Michael.” Since everything between Yi and Cera seem to be moving along quite well, Nick wants the documentary to end in Paris, the City of Love. Unfortunately, Cera is growing tired of everything on camera and ends it with Yi before this can happen. “I’m sad that he wants me to love him and I can’t,” Yi laments. They go to Paris anyway where Yi is visibly miserable the entire time. On their return, they head to Toronto because Yi missed Cera. She doesn’t allow the cameras to follow her inside this time.

“The reason we made the film is that love is universal and everyone wants to mean something to someone,” Yi explains. “I’ve met people who’ve seen the film and it’s made them appreciate what they have or if they don’t have that love it inspires them. It might make them less bitter about love. So that’s great.”

“I also think it is love told through the eyes of a 23-year-old girl,” Johnson adds. “So I think that’s a good way of looking at it. Obviously that’s just another perspective of it.”

Paper Heart is a revelatory delight not to be missed.


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  1. #1 by Julie P. on August 18, 2009 - 13:15

    I read the book when it first came out a few years ago! I am not one who ever gets around to seeing a movie in the theater, but this is one I'm going to try to see.

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