‘Small Talk’: One Taiwan director’s courageous tale of family strife

Source:AFP Published: 2017/3/28 18:58:40

Filmmaker Huang Hui-chen holds up a poster for her new film Small Talk. Photo: AFP

Filmmaker Huang Hui-chen felt bound by labels while growing up in Taiwan - impoverished, a school dropout and daughter of a lesbian Taoist priestess who she yearned to understand.

Her award-winning directorial debut Small Talk is the culmination of two decades of filming their fraught relationship and was named best documentary last month at the Berlin International Film Festival, winning the LGBT-focused Teddy Award.

Set to hit the big screen in Taiwan in April, it comes as the island's "parliament" prepares to vote on a final bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

A landmark case currently in the local court could also lead to a change in the law, making Taiwan the first place in Asia to allow gay couples to legally tie the knot.

But three decades ago, when Huang was a child, homosexuality was much less accepted.

She recalls vividly how, as an 11-year-old, she overheard two elderly acquaintances calling her mother abnormal, a tongzhi - the Chinese term for someone who is gay.

Until then, Huang had not thought twice about her mother's relationships with women.

"My impression when I was little was that she was always surrounded by girlfriends. That she liked girls and was friendly with them," she told AFP.

"That one sentence sowed a seed of doubt in me. Why is that called abnormal?"

On the outside

Huang, 39, says she also felt like an outsider due to her family's unconventional lifestyle.

From the age of 6, she and her younger sister worked in Taipei with her mother as part of her duties as a priestess for Taoism - Taiwan's dominant religion. 

The family specialized in a ritual called "leading the dead," a song and dance performance believed to guide the soul to salvation and staged at funeral parlors and gravesides.

Huang says the occupation is considered a lowly blue-collar job and she felt her peers looked down upon her.

By the time she was 10, she had stopped attending school. Her mother left Huang's abusive father and did not enroll her in classes in their new neighborhood. 

Her film is an attempt to encourage younger generations who feel isolated or undervalued, she says.

"Kids who don't go to school, people who 'lead the dead,' a child with a tongzhi mother - all of them are worth more than the label society gives them," Huang told AFP.

Violent undercurrents

Huang's mother - Hung Yue-nu, known as Anu - never tried to hide her sexual orientation after splitting from her husband and only had relationships with women after that.

But equally she never discussed it with her daughter, who says her mother was always distant.

While the pair did not fight, Huang felt ignored as her mother lavished attention on her girlfriends. She was also resentful about not being able to attend school like other children.

"Our relationship seemed peaceful on the surface, but violent undercurrents raged beneath," Huang said.

In her film, she tries to broach the divide. 

Huang narrates the movie and her mother, ex-girlfriends and family members are all interviewed.

Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who made award-winning film The Assassin, is executive producer.

Anu first watched herself at the film's world premiere in Taipei, ahead of Taiwan's 2016 Golden Horse Awards, where it was nominated for best documentary.

"She sat next to me and I could tell she was holding back tears," Huang said.

Gay marriage debate

Huang became interested in filmmaking at the age of 20, when a director came to shoot her as part of a piece about young funeral performers.

She then took film courses at a community college and began to explore her emotions about her mother.

"I learned another way to observe the world," she told AFP.

Huang, who is now mother to a 5-year-old daughter, says communication with Anu is still not perfect, but is better than in the past.

"The film was not only about me understanding my mother, it was about her understanding me," she says.

Huang also says she hopes her film will spur conversations on gay rights and issues around education and single parenthood.

She believes the local government should work harder to push the gay marriage bill, despite opposition from conservative groups.

But Anu appears to have little interest in the debate, says Huang.

She once brought her mother to Taipei's huge annual gay pride parade.

Despite the party atmosphere, Anu soon became bored and wanted to go and play chess with her friends, Huang says.

"Perhaps her state of mind is the most ideal - that one does not need to make a statement to prove one's value," she says.

Newspaper headline: Bridging the divide

Posted in: FILM

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