“Small Talk” (“Ri Chang Dui Hua”)
A Special Family Story
Filmmaker Hui-chen Huang shares her personal journey towards reconciliation of her childhood while at the same time analyzing her society’s connection to gender equality and varying identities and sexual orientations. Huang’s mother earns a living as a spirit guide for the deceased at their funerals and she never stayed at home; she was always out and about with her girlfriends instead. The daughter tries very hard to understand her mother. We get an inside look at a culture we probably are not be familiar with in this powerful documentary that is of universal significance and also extremely intimate at the same time.
The film is very timely when we consider the recent parliamentary steps towards the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. “Small Talk” is a love letter from Huang to her mother who we learn silently suffered from an abusive relationship that came out of a forced marriage in a small Taiwanese village in the 1970s. It is also about the rejection of her sexual orientation by society and her gradual estrangement from her two daughters
As we watch and listen to conversations between Huang and her mother, we see them confront painful experiences that they shared, and in doing so discuss difficult questions regarding their love for each other. The film concludes with a conversation between the two at the dinner table, where their wounds are torn open brutally, candidly and intimately. Shot through three cameras that capture close-ups and profile shots, we see them sitting across a table with no physical contact. Even though Huang’s mother remains silent for the most part during the encounter, her eyes and movements say a great deal.
It is the camera that gives the pretext of opportunity for the filmmaker to physically and emotionally connects with her mother. It is only from behind the lens that Huang is able to fixate on the facial expressions of her mother and show every wrinkle in her mother’s face. The tension breaks when the filmmaker’s aunt, after being asked whether she knew that her sister likes women, rushes inside to announce, “I need to do the laundry”. It is this moment (along with several repetitive sessions of back-and-forth questioning of “Did you know?” and “I didn’t know”) that shows the tremendous need of “small talk”. Here we become very aware of the importance of giving a voice to those who remain silent for too long, those who are despised and discriminated against, and those who should be freed from feelings of shame.
“Small Talk” gives a message is universal and speaks to an audience regardless of nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background. It is Huang’s feature directorial debut and she should be very proud.
The film is a meditative exploration into the past of her family with each layer revealing a little more about who her mother Anu is (as a Taoist priestess, a lover to many girlfriends, a dependable friend, and an absentee mother). It is the identify of a mother that Hui-chen wants to understand, since Anu has made it clear that she never wanted to get married nor have children. Huang attempts to break down the wall that stands between herself and her mother for the past 20 years. The film also includes interviews with Anu’s past and present lovers, Anu’s siblings, as well as home video shot over the course of the last 20 years to present a daughter’s vague understanding of her lesbian mom.
The ultimate reveal comes when Huang finally gains the courage to have “the conversation” with Anu, which will either free mother and daughter from their shared painful past or further estrange them.