Director Hui-Chen Huang started her career by looking at the most mysterious, sphinx-like character around her – her mother, Anu. In The Priestess Walks Alone (2016), she explored her mother’s relation to her job as a Priestess for the deceased, while traveling around with her. In Small Talk, she just sits at a table and tries to talk to her. Which one is the most fascinating, it is hard to say.
Anu always knew she was a lesbian, but at 22 she was forced to marry an abusive man. From him she had two daughters, and from him she ran away, with her kids behind her. Scared that he would find them, she got a job as a Priestess and made her daughters work with her, a tradition still upheld by Huang’s sister and her nieces. For Huang, though, the moment has come to finally know her mother – living under the same roof as her, barely having any connection apart from the food Anu cooked for her and her grandchild -, either in Anu’s own words, or from the rest of her family and previous girlfriends. As the awkward silences and small talk progress, Hueng paints the portrait of three very different generations of women, a sexist, traditionalist Taiwan, and a traumatising family past.
Small Talk is an intimate documentary, slow-progressing, building up until the tense, tear-heavy confrontation near the end. How do you get to know someone that doesn’t want to be known? How can you learn about your past when your own mother pretends things never happened? How to be sure your mother loves you? As Hueng searches for answers in old video tapes, photos, and her mother’s silences, in a culture where it is not okay to speak about “certain things” (most of the family denies knowing Anu is a lesbian, for example, preferring to use the term “tomboy”), Anu goes from being the distant, strange woman, always out gambling with friends, to appear as a vulnerable yet strong woman, taught from a young age to repress her own feelings, abused emotional and physically by her ex-husband, and thus incapable to express her love for her daughters – though, according to one of her ex-girlfriends, very generous in bed.
Winner of the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival, Small Talk is not the type of doc that will attract attention, or turn heads around. Clear from gimmicks, controversy or hot topics, it is however a good film which meditates in what family and love mean, while reflecting on the delicate relation between mother and daughter.
Small Talk is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival, in London this weekend. For more information please check http://opencitylondon.com