Small Talk is one of those compelling documentaries that demand patience from the viewer in the same manner that Hui-chen Huang the filmmaker had to exercise in getting her mother ……the subject of the film ….to open up about her life. Their share a home together in Taiwan, and although the presence Huang’s very young child acts as an ice-breaker between these two women, there is still a great deal of resentment, and possibly even hostility between them.
Anu the mother is a lesbian, and something of a tomboy too. Growing up in rural Taiwan she had an arranged marriage, as was customary there in the 1970s, and then gave birth to two children, but very soon ran off with them to escape her violent husband, who she then quickly divorced. Bringing up the children alone, she earned a living as a Spirit Guide and professional mourner at weddings and made her daughters miss school so they could they could perform with her too. Life was tough for her and the two girls and it evidently resulted in her being lacking any real maternal instinct and being absent for so much of their lives.
Obviously some years have passed in order to be able to get to the stage where mother and daughter are back living together in the same apartment. However they seemingly lead separate lives and are barely talking to each other, that is until Huang starts making this film. It’s considered taboo in Chinese culture to question a mother’s unconditional love, and yet this is exactly what Huang wants to do when she starts to pepper her with questions for probably the first time in her life.
Anu sits there silently for most of their conversations. It seems to be a mixture of stoicism and stubbornness, and also a great deal of shame. Oddly enough the later is not related to her sexuality but more about the public perception of having a husband that beat her. Huang is obviously tormented by her mother’s reluctance to even attempt to answer some of the questions about their past which has troubled her for years, and so keeps on asking even though she is just met with more silence. The real breakthrough comes through when Huang shares a shocking secret from her childhood that astonishes her mother, even though it may not have exactly provoked the response that she wanted and needed to get some real closure.
Huang’s attempts to understand her mother also include taking her back to her childhood home in the country and by also talking to her mother’s siblings and ex-lovers. In doing so she paints a very vivid picture of changing living conditions for three generations of women in Taiwan.
The final words on this come from Huang herself “My mother and I have lived like strangers under one roof for decades. The only exchanges between us are the meals she cooks for me since we never talk to each other. One day, I finally summon up the courage to sit her down and make her talk. But am I ready to hear what she has to say?”
This excellent very intimate fly-on-the-documentary shows a culture where ‘sharing’ may not be an acceptable practice, but it clearly demonstrates that is so much needed for people to be able to heal and grow.
The movie very deservedly won a prestigious Teddy Award for Best LGBT Documentary at Berlinale earlier this year.