There is an image in the documentary Small Talk striking enough to be reproduced in line-drawing form part-way through the film. At one end of a small family table sits Hui-chen, the filmmaker who has pointed the camera on her own relationship with her mother. She sits calmly, her back straight and feet apart looking across the table at her mother, Anu. Anu, by contrast, sits so defensively that she has all but curled into a ball. Her leg is hugged close to her chest, her head is down and only one dangling leg prevents her from being entirely turned in on herself. Their night-and-day postures belie the fact that both are going through the wringer, trying their best to keep it together as the shared history of their intertwined and difficult past is brought to light.
Small Talk begins with its heart on its sleeve. Anu and Hui-chen are distant and have been for as long as Hui-chen can remember. Preferring the company of her friends to those of her children, Anu presents her daughter and granddaughter with an impassable wall; in opening scenes we only see her break into a smile when in the company of friends. Hui-chen has made it her mission to ask her mother, a Taoist ‘soul guide’, some questions about her past to try to understand something of her soul.
The opening mystery is Anu’s sexuality; a gay woman, her numerous girlfriends were part of the children’s upbringing. One of Hui-chen’s first lines of enquiry is to try to understand why her mother never spoke about this openly with them. At certain points it seems that sexuality will be the key to making sense of this truculent and fiercely self-reliant woman; perhaps this reflects the expectations of the filmmaker as she embarks on this deeply personal project. But as the story unfolds, other family secrets begin to emerge and an unspoken conspiracy of silence starts to crumble under Hui-chen’s persistent lens.
One of the strengths of the documentary is the camera itself, which is an ever-present character in the narrative. We have multiple requests from Anu to stop filming, people reacting with surprise to the camera, and questions about its presence. At one point Hui-chen explains to her mother that only the act of filming is allowing her to ask the painful questions she does. A touching final scene brings the camera motif back as an on-screen character in the hands of Anu’s granddaughter, who apparently takes inspiration from her mother in utilising the power of filming to elicit responses.
Small Talk is not a documentary which offers easy answers or a neat narrative arc. We will not see one single cathartic exchange which restores a broken relationships as reality TV shows would have it. The journey is more nuanced, more painful and with less of a clear-cut character arc. Tensions remain. Daily life continues. Meals get made. There’s not enough salt.
And yet something does change. There’s a scene towards the end of the film in which the family visits their childhood home. As the family are lined up in frame quite formally by Hui-chen, looking for all the world like one of the Taiwanese opera lineups we see in an earlier shot, most remain impassive and unmoved by her questions. What’s there to see in an old pile of bricks? they ask. Anu’s expression is fascinating: fluid and impossible to read. What is passing through the mind of this complicated woman whose face has been nothing but stony with her inquisitive daughter?
A documentary like this, with a filmmaker bringing her art to bear on her own family tragedies, can be nothing other than intensely personal. Hui-chen does not shy away from making herself central to the story, through voiceovers and as questioner – sometimes seen, sometimes not. There are two moments where she takes a more central role, all the more powerful for being used sparingly. One is a full-frame shot of her face, on an equal footing with her mother, as much subject as storyteller. The other is a beautifully-handled piece of filmmaking. Anu is about to walk away; she has done this before when the stakes get too high. This time, though, she takes out a couple of extra tissues from the pack before taking her own – a blink-and-you-miss-it moment of empathy and tenderness. As Anu leaves the room, the camera zooms out to show our interviewer using the proffered tissues, as overwrought as her mother is.
Small Talk is not a comfortable watch; there are painful and disturbing revelations to which Anu’s curled up, protective posture seems wholly appropriate. Yet it is a wonderfully brave and humane piece of filmmaking that casts a raw and naked light on the secrets we keep and the pain that individuals and families try – and fail – to hide.
Original title: 日常對話
Year of release:2016