The Advantage to Having a ‘Woman’s Gaze

Isabella Tan started her undergraduate career studying cinematography. Then in year two, she decided that she wanted to be her own boss.

Courtesy: Isabella Tan

“I was so inspired by Reed Morano who both shot and directed ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’,” said Tan who is a Director of Photography (DP). Tan also does fashion photography and serves as the Executive Creative Director of Rebel Motion, a creative agency based out of New York.

Being trained in cinematography and as a director has its pros and cons.

“I never feel like I could master just one craft in particular,” said Tan. “But at the same time that makes me unique as a director, because I bring a technical standpoint to being a DP, and an emotional standpoint to cinematography.”

From the beginning, Tan was aware that G&E (Grips and Electrics) and Camera was a very male dominated industry.

“When I was studying at NYU, there were only about two girls out of eleven guys in my class. I got so many comments when people realized I wanted to be a DP, because as a petite Asian woman, people wouldn’t really expect me to carry equipment or they’d say something like ‘you’d do so well in shooting fashion’,” recalled Tan. “And when I realized cinematography was what I wanted to do, I was also aware that there were a lot of male cinematographers already out there with a lot of experience.”

Recently, Tan traveled back to Malaysia to shoot a commercial.
“I was on set working and I noticed that the local crew were taking pictures of me on set to show their friends. They were just so surprised to see a female director on set,” she said.

Tan also struggled with going against tradition and family expectations.
“In Asian culture we are taught to respect the man and elders, and what I my family wanted for me is very different than what I do,” said Tan. “I was supposed to study one thing and marry rich but instead I applied for art colleges behind my dad’s back, even though I was supposed to go to law colleges in England. I went against everyone’s ideals and ended up here.”

After graduating, Tan created the creative agency, Rebel Motion.
“I realized that there weren’t a lot spaces for people of color and minorities to have a safe community to work together, especially for women. Being international, I come from a place where women are not respected, and I realized we needed a space for this,” said Tan who was born in Taiwan and raised in Malaysia.

Courtesy: Isabella Tan

As a woman, Tan took what her skeptics thought to be a weakness, and turned it into a strength.

“I’ve been told I have a woman’s gaze,” said Tan. “People have approached me for certain things because they feel more comfortable working with a woman, such as films that involve nudity or female stories. But I’ve also done the World War II action movies.”

Emotion is key to how Tan frames her shots.

“People tend to gravitate towards my work, because I have a lot of empathy. I frame them differently than men do. As women, we don’t care about the physicality of movement and we look for the emotion,” continued Tan. “As women we are much more comfortable about expressing emotion but it can be used against us. We are told that we care too much. What do you mean we care too much? We’re supposed to care.”

Tan is currently working on several projects. Among them is a film called Daughters.

Daughters is a short film about an Asian immigrant mother and her Asian-american daughter. The film is about the mother’s desperation for her daughter to fit into this culture, and the daughter resisting,” explained Tan.

Courtesy: Isabella Tan

Tan has also done a story line opposite to Daughters.
“I’ve done a film about families who were so rooted in tradition, and the daughter is a sexual assault survivor. She struggles with this when she is deciding where to go to college, and her abuser comes back and visits her,” said Tan.

Embracing taboo topics is Tan’s voice.
“I take on these hard topics about women growing up. The films I make echoes things that have happened to me, and I find so much strength in making art out of the pain,” she said. “I take on these difficult topics; I find the complexity so beautiful. There’s something about complex and dark about these things that remind people of humanity and their own humanity.”

As for future projects, Tan is in the process of purchasing several studio lots in Malaysia.

“I want these lots to be accessible to indie and female filmmakers. I was fortunate enough to come here and do what I want to do, but not everyone can do that,” said Tan. “I want to create a space for them and hold workshops, expand, and teach.”

Tan is also creating and co-producing with HMN Creative on a project called “Wonderland”, a fashion film. The project features a series of fairy tales about women growing up in different cultures. In the finished film Alice, the theme of Alice discovering her sexuality, and eventually becomes the Red Queen.

“The next film is called Siren and it’s based off of ‘The Little Mermaid’. It discusses the oppression of Asian women who struggle to get to the air — which represents the Western world — and once they get there, they realize they don’t have a voice,” she said.

As for advice for aspiring female artists?

“It’s cliche, but stay steadfast. There are going to be people who tell you that you are wrong and you can’t do it or to pick a different path, but you are your biggest advocate,” said Tan. “I remember telling my mom this quote by Cher, when she wanted me to just marry rich.”

“I told her that I was the wealthy man, or at least I’d become one.”

Find and follow Tan’s work on Instagram at @its.bellatan or @rebel_motion or at isabella-tan.com.