Brick by brick, walls crumble in Huang Hui-chen’s touching documentary.
“Do you think anyone understands you?”
“Don’t know. Who wants to understand me?”
Small Talk is director Huang Hui-chen’s decades-long project designed to find out more about her distant, untalkative mother. A butch, stoic old lesbian, Anu has spent most of her life silent about her past, as well as her feelings, finding it better to keep to herself, while also spending most of her time and her attention on her girlfriends. Huang Hui-chen uses the documentary format as a platform on which to learn more, through interviews with Anu, as well as her extended family.
This is a project that Huang has been working on for quite some time, and it’s very evident through the years of footage she has amassed. However it’s only now, in the most recent videos that we start to see Anu open up a bit. Clad in masculine clothes and a crew cut, Anu is immediately standoffish. The film formtat almost forces her into talking about her past in a way she never been able to, effectively guiding her hand through various aspects of her past. We learn about her growing up with her family, most of which get embarrassed or silent as soon as Anu’s lesbianism comes up, as well as her arranged marriage to a man who would turn out to be a terrible piece of crap.
Through interviews with her, her friends and family, we begin to piece together a life of a Taoist Soul Guide, a “generous” lover but definitely an absent mother. Naturally, this has left Huang wondering if her mother even likes her and her sister, as it is clear that Anu never really wanted to have kids in the first place. As Anu says “I’m better off alone”. That she even agreed to have this film be made – and throughout, she often tells her daughter to turn off the cameras – is a wonder. After all, as one of her brothers say near the end, while the family visits their old ruined home, still littered with old photos, “sometimes the past should remain the past”.
Thankfully, it is a ploy that works as Anu becomes increasingly honest (but never too open) with her daughter about the hardships they have both faced, and the results are incredible. By putting herself and her story with her mother at the centre of it, Huang allows this film to have an incredibly potent emotional heart. It’s the sort of response you can only hint at in fiction and never works quite as well with the detached “fly on the wall” documentaries. Here, Huang spills her soul to both her mother and the audience, allowing us a glimpse into this pain that is usually kept private.
Small Talks is, so far, my favourite film from this year’s London East Asian Film Festival, and also one of the ones I was probably looking forward to the least. Boy was I wrong on that last point. Your response to this film will likely change based on your cultural standpoint – perhaps you understand that older generation Asian stoicism, or maybe you think Anu is despicable – but you’ll definitely come out of it feeling something. To me, Small Talk didn’t speak on a personal level in any way, but I felt I understood both sides. Both Anu and Huang have a great deal of pain and it looks like this film was a great step towards healing from that pain, and towards building a stronger bond.
Verdict: Short, but powerful, Small Talk’s realism and emotional core are its strongest points
Overall score: 9/10
Anecdotal sex and violence: Quite a bit. Some of it pretty disturbing.
Feels: All the feels
Small Talk (2016)
Also known as
Director: Huang Hui-chen