Saturday, 23 December 2017

Review: Small Talk

Many times A-nu (left) is silent when her daughter asks her tough questions
On the plane back to Vancouver, I watched an intriguing Taiwanese documentary called Small Talk (日常對話) that was released last year. It made its international premiere at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival where it won a Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film. It has also recently been nominated as Taiwan's pick for the foreign-language film category in the Academy Awards.

A-nu is more at ease with her many girlfriends
It is a brutally honest film about filmmaker Huang Hui-chen and her relationship with her lesbian mother A-nu, who is a Taoist priestess at funerals. Huang says in the beginning that even though she has lived with her mother most of her life, she knows almost nothing about her, always not home and wants to know why. Is it because she doesn't love her two daughters? Is it because they were adopted?

Through a series of tough face-to-face interviews, as well as footage meeting her mother's siblings, talking to her mother's lovers past and present, and even old home movies of Huang growing up, we along with Huang find out more about A-nu.

We discover she knew from a young age that she was lesbian and Huang doesn't understand or at times is naive about what it's like to be gay, and we discover how she is very generous and loving towards her several girlfriends.

In one scene, A-nu plays with her granddaughter
When asked to comment about their sister's sexuality, her brothers and older sister either don't want to talk about it or don't seem to care. They seem embarrassed to talk about it, and would rather discuss her failed arranged marriage to a man.

Before when I used to watch Chinese movies, there would be a lot of silence between characters and I thought it was for dramatic effect, but this is what happens in reality. There are very long pauses when A-nu answers Huang's questions, or complete silence; you can tell she is thinking about something but says she won't answer the question and gets up to leave, with Huang left sitting in the chair disappointed not to get more information.

However she is persistent and the climax of the film is quite intense. As viewers we don't quite know what happens in the end -- are things better or worse between mother and daughter?

Huang with her Teddy Award
Although the pace seems slow, Small Talk attracts viewers with its intriguing premise and we go on a journey with Huang to find out more about A-nu. Her lovers recounting how she seduced them are the light-hearted moments in the film and reveal a touching side of A-nu that Huang was completely unaware of, though they are equally balanced by the dark experiences both mother and daughter faced.

The film is executive produced by famed director Hou Hsiao-hsien, giving it not only professional weight, but also an endorsement to talk about LGBT stories. Will we see more from Taiwan? That would be light years ahead of Hong Kong...

Small Talk (2016)
Directed by Huang Hui-chen
88 Minutes

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