LGBT films seem to spur from every corner of SE Asia during the latest years (not in bulk, do not be upset Bastian) with films like “Close-Knit” (Japan), “Our Love Story” (S. Korea) and “Fathers” (Thailand), for example. However, and although these films are good, none of them seems to be great. “Small Talk” comes to fill this gap, in a process that netted it the Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film at the Berlin Film Festival, among other local and international awards, and made it the official Taiwanese entry for the 90th Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The documentary revolves around Huang and her mother A-nu’s relationship, and by revealing the latter’s past, sheds light in the events that have led them to alienation, despite the fact that they have been living under the same roof, for years. A-nu’s life story is filled with drama, being the daughter of an abusive father who led her mother to death and eventually becoming married to one, too, who was also gambler, and despite the fact that she was a lesbian. Through, reluctant at first, interviews with her, her lovers and her family members after a trip to the place she grew up, her life story is brought to light, which, although revealing, does not explain why she was always leaving her two daughters alone to spend time with her (girl)friends.
As the documentary progresses, the confessions become more and more shocking, starting with her girlfriends talking about sex (which could not have been easy for Huang), A-nu’s relationship and feelings for her husband and finally, Huang’s own confession, which sheds even darker light to her life as a child. Through all the above, Huang seems to pose three, very important questions: does my mother love me, did she want to have my sister and me in the first place, and if positive, why did she neglect us for so many years? These questions, with the first standing above all, form the basis of the film, with the rest of its aspects existing to provide answers. This aspect, and a kind of an answer, is delightfully presented in the ending scene, which has Huang’s infant daughter as the protagonist.
The documentary thrives on realism: no additional footage for the purpose of visual treatment, no dramatization, and in general, no elements that serve the purpose of beautifying the film. I found this tactic ingenious, particularly because the dialogues-interviews and the footage from the past (photos and videos), present the subject in a no-nonsense approach, through Jessica Lin’s editing, that benefits the medium the most, as Huang allows her audience to contemplate on the main issues, undistracted. Some comments regarding the conservatism of the old generation, which was the reason A-nu had to marry, the general approach of the Taiwanese and particularly of the new generation towards LGBT are also presented, and provide additional depth to the documentary.
One aspect that becomes quite clear is that A-nu has trouble externalizing her feelings and even more, talking about herself, with the interviews occasionally functioning as interrogations, particularly because she truly seems to suffer because of them. Che Lin’s cinematography, which consists of intense zoom-ins during these sessions, intensifies this sense. Huang’s approach to these sentiments is rather harsh, to the point that she seems vindictive, despite the fact that there is much justification for her behaviour. However, when she takes the same approach towards her teenage nieces, and particularly the one who has no thoughts on the LGBT issues, I could not stop thinking that maybe she went a bit overboard.
“Small Talk” is a very impactful documentary that manages to present a shocking story in utterly realistic fashion, and definitely one of the best Asian documentaries of the year.