Movie review: Documentary The Silk And The Flame a solid work of family anthropology

Cinema still from the documentary The Silk And The Flame.
Cinema still from the documentary The Silk And The Flame.PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR

Documentary

THE SILK AND THE FLAME (M18)

87 minutes/Now showing at The Projector/3 stars


The story: Yao is a gay man in his late thirties who has made a good life in Beijing. But when Chinese New Year comes, he makes one of China's 2.9 billion passenger journeys - the biggest human migration in the world - to his parents' home in rural Henan province. There, he endures days of questions about why he has not yet found a wife. The interrogation has become more urgent because strokes have crippled his father.

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 that 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 runs through many Asian families. Around the table at a Chinese New Year reunion, family members sit on a powder keg of emotions and history.