Small Talk 日常對話 (2016)

Taiwan

Director: Huang Hui-chen 黃惠偵

Studio: Small Talk Productions

Language: Taiwanese 台語,Mandarin 國語

Genre: Documentary

Running Time: 88 minutes

Recommended. A fantastic, emotional look into a mother and daughter’s relationship, revealed over a series of dialogues between the two.


Huang has always felt as though there’s a wall between herself and her mother. When she was young, she and her sister didn’t go to school, instead they helped their mother in her job as a priestess. At night, her mother would go out to meet friends, leaving her two children.

Now Huang has her own daughter, but her mother still lives with her. Things have changed little. Aside from the time she takes to cook, Huang’s mother still spends most of her time out with her friends.

In a documentary shot over more than a decade, Huang decides to find out the reasons behind the distance between them. But the truth will also force her to confront her own childhood memories, and her mother’s role in them.


Small Talk is a film which surprised us. Although it premiered last year to very favourable reviews, we had not taken the time to find out what the film was about, never having had the chance for one reason or another to see the film. However, by the time the opportunity to see the film came along, we had certainly had heard enough praise to know we should seize the chance.

The documentary can be split into two parts. The majority are the scenes shot following the birth of director Huang’s daughter, but there is also a large amount of material shot dating back to 1998, documenting many small moments of family life. According to the director, she had been recording this story for many years, but it was only after the birth of her daughter that she finally decided she had to put it all together to show the world.

It is a story that reaches into the very fundamental aspects of the human experience: love, family ties, societal expectations, and the depth that trauma can scar someone’s life.

Many of the documentary’s revelations about the lives of Huang and her mother take place at a table in her apartment, in a direct conversation between the two women. This incredibly private setting serves to emphasise the nature of this story, which in turn, can make it ever harder to watch some of the most emotional scenes. Yet they reveal such a remarkable story that you will do so.

Such a story cannot be properly served by a our words, but we will give a brief summary. Huang’s mother is gay, though she grew up in a time when there was not an acceptable life choice. She had two children with Huang’s father, in a loveless arranged marriage. He would gamble, drink and abuse her, and we later find out in one of the documentary’s most harrowing scenes, Huang. Her mother admits that if she ever had the choice, she’d have never gotten married and never had children. And yet, behind it all there it’s clear she does deeply love her children. But a lifetime of hiding, of bearing the “shame” of being beaten, and living a life branded a “deviant” have clearly worn deeply.

Although many families may not have a story quite as dramatic as Huang’s own, to us that is not the point of the film. It is rare, in any family, for people to truly peel back the layers behind the way we treat each other. Truly, every life is full of heartbreak and regrets. Imagine yourself sitting down with someone you love, and examining your relationship. What would you find?

The Goddess 神女 (1934)

China

Director: Wu Yonggang 吳永剛

Studio: Lianhua 聯華

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: Silent / Drama

Running Time: 75 minutes

Recommended.  If you’ve never seen a silent film before, this is a great way to start.


 

Released during what can be considered the first boom in the Chinese cinema industry, the 1930s, The Goddess is perhaps the most famous film of the era, and certainly the most accessible, having had numerous Western releases.

The film is thematically typical of the so-called leftist cinema of the era — that of the struggle of ordinary citizens against an unjust and corrupt society. It’s a product of the Shanghai studio system, with all the major cinematic productions of that era emanating from the Lianhua 聯華, Mingxing 明星 and Tianyi 天一 film companies.

Familiar though its themes may be, The Goddess remains a powerful piece of cinema even today.

The film revolves around a woman working as a prostitute in order to provide for her son. Early on, she evades a police sweep by hiding in a man’s room, only for him to suggest she stays the night as payment. As it turns out, this man is a local gambler, who takes control of her life, despite her attempts to escape.

Throughout, her son is her solace, who she is determined to put through school so he does not suffer as she has. Unfortunately, word spreads around the school about her circumstances, and letters are sent to the school principal demanding he take action.

The principal, however, is moved when he goes to visit the woman to determine the truth of the matter. Seeing her devotion to improving her son’s life, he decides against expelling her son. His decision is not accepted by the rest of the school’s staff, however, and he resigns — unable to prevent the expulsion.

Realising that she cannot build a good life for her son where she is, she decides it’s best for them move. However, she discovers the money she’s been hiding away has been stolen by the gambler.

Furious, she confronts him at a gambling den, where he admits to having taken, and spent, the money. With his back turned, she strikes him over the head with a nearby bottle, killing him.

The film ends with her sentenced to jail for 12 years, and her son in an orphanage. The principal, who had been the one of the few in the film to treat her and her son with any humanity, comes by to let her know that he will look after her son. She tells him to tell her son she is dead, rather than let him know the shame of her life.

Although, like many of its contemporaries, the film leans heavily on the melodramatic mode, it is driven by the performance of actress Ruan Lingyu 阮玲玉.

Ruan was one of the stars of 1930s Shanghai and her own life also ended in tragedy. Aged just 24, she committed suicide after a period of intense speculation regarding her private life. Though under different circumstances, perhaps she could relate all too well with the The Goddess in her inability to escape the judgement of those around her.

Despite its age, and mode, The Goddess remains an eminently watchable film — one who’s lessons are (sadly) just as relevant almost 100 years later — and an important piece of Chinese cinematic history.