A man's struggle with sexuality and family pressure

Documentary The Silk And The Flame is about Yao, who has to endure family pressure to marry and have children.
Documentary The Silk And The Flame is about Yao, who has to endure family pressure to marry and have children.PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR



87 minutes/Now showing at The Projector/3 stars

The story: Yao is in his late 30s and has made a good life in Beijing. When Chinese New Year comes, he is one of the billions making their way home. He travels to his parents' home in rural Henan province, where he endures days of questions about why he has not yet found a wife. The interrogation has become more urgent because his father has been crippled by strokes.

If you think your Chinese parents, aunts and uncles are pushy, you ought to see Yao's household.

He dreads Chinese New Year because that is when the successful, confident member of Beijing's arts community has to return to his village in Henan to become a son, one who is constantly reminded of how he has failed in his duty to marry and produce children.

American film-maker Jordan Schiele is the fly on the wall recording Yao's days of psychological pressure. Schiele, who is fluent in Mandarin, conducts interviews with Yao and chats with his mother, a formidable woman who speaks in a self-created sign language because a childhood illness rendered her deaf and mute.

It is a strange, often tragicomic tableau: The white foreigner in a nondescript village in central China, in a house with a despondent Chinese man, a mother who gesticulates while making odd mouth noises, as his mute, bedridden father looks on. The son lives a double life, one that requires him to fashion a false identity at home, complete with a fake girlfriend, to have a respite from the nagging and to give his parents peace of mind.

Schiele shoots in black-and-white, giving everything an abstract look that forces viewers to focus on faces. Yao's is serene, often giving way to melancholy; his mother's is lined from worry and work while his father's is leathery from decades of toiling in the fields.

The film-maker's standpoint as an outsider, to Yao's family and to China, makes his point of view interesting. He is starting from zero in understanding Confucian family obligations and his earnestness in trying to comprehend Yao's mental distress is apparent.

At nearly 90 minutes in length though, lethargy seeps into the story. A good 20 minutes could have been cut. Or, if Schiele had spent more time with Yao in the city or with his farmer parents in Henan prior to the festival, he might have emerged with a more visually interesting, fleshed-out story.

Still, this is a solid work of family anthropology, one that captures the complicated currents of guilt, respect, responsibility and love that run through many Asian families. Around the table at a Chinese New Year reunion, family members sit on a powder keg of emotions and history.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2019, with the headline 'A man's struggle with sexuality and family pressure'. Subscribe