Small Talk (2016)

Review #1,436

Director:  Huang Hui-Chen
Plot:  A family story of a very special kind. The mother earns a living as a spirit guide for the deceased at their funerals: she was never at home, always out and about with her girlfriends instead. The daughter now goes to great lengths to attempt to understand her mother.

Genre:  Documentary
Awards:  Won Teddy Award (Berlin).  Nom. for 2 Golden Horses - Best Documentary, Best Film Editing
Runtime:  88min
Rating:  R21 for homosexual theme
International Sales:  Small Talk Productions

Huang Hui-Chen, the director of Small Talk, is an astute filmmaker.  Featuring herself in the documentary so that she could interview her mother (a stranger to her for decades), Huang encourages her mum to make small talk, if only to bring her to a state where she could confront the past, and share her hidden regrets and deepest desires. 

A winner of the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival, Small Talk is an intimate ‘family’ documentary, operating as a first-perspective piece on a conflicted soul that also masquerades as a psychoanalytical exercise. 

In her 70s now, the elderly woman has lived under the same roof with Huang and her young daughter, but finds herself unable to communicate with them.  The cathartic process of filmmaking illuminates the connection between maker and subject, thus revealing the inseparable bond between mother and daughter, characterized by shared history and memories.

For a documentary that centers on the filmmaker’s mother, one might immediately pre-judge it to be a bore-fest.  But Small Talk is a very nimble work, finely-edited with images of both urban and rural spaces of Taiwan, yet it is the digging into the past in several one-to-one interviews that gives the documentary its raw emotional power. 

The setup is no frills: a camera, a table, Huang on one end, her mother on the other.  They converse in Hokkien, a language I’m familiar with, which for me is associated with a distant time—of the ‘90s when I was growing up with my grandparents. 

The reluctance to share one’s feelings is especially deep-rooted in conservative Chinese families.  In a way, one can see Small Talk as a film that one can dream of living through vicariously, a kind of realist fantasy where there is always an urge to want to know more about your parents (and likewise, parent-to-child), yet it is never satisfied.

It is no secret to Huang, or anyone else, that her tomboyish mother is a lesbian.  She also used to be a Taoist priestess working at funerals.  While Small Talk doesn’t go into the controversial debate of religion in relation to LGBT issues (a strategy that doesn’t do it any disservice), there is enough material in response to Huang’s mother’s sexuality to elicit a soul-searching feeling of wanting to understand something innate if elusive: how does one live as/with a lesbian mother? 

Verdict:  A finely-edited first-perspective Taiwanese documentary that explores the relationship between ageing mother and adult daughter—intensely personal, emotional and illuminating.  


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