Filmmaker Huang Hui-chen felt bound by labels while growing up in Taiwan – impoverished, a school dropout and daughter of a lesbian Taoist priestess who she yearned to understand.

Her award-winning directorial debut “Small Talk” is the culmination of two decades of filming their fraught relationship and was named best documentary last month at the Berlin International Film Festival, winning the LGBT-focused Teddy Award.

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This picture taken on March 9, 2017 shows Huang Hui-chen, director of “Small Talk”, displaying the film’s poster during an interview at a cafe in Taipei. Photo: AFP/Sam Yeh.

Set to hit the big screen in Taiwan in April, it comes as the island’s parliament prepares to vote on a final bill to legalise same-sex marriage.

A landmark case currently in the constitutional court could also lead to a change in the law, making Taiwan the first place in Asia to allow gay couples to legally tie the knot.

But three decades ago, when Huang was a child, homosexuality was much less accepted.

She recalls vividly how, as an 11-year-old, she overheard two elderly acquaintances calling her mother abnormal, a “tongzhi” – the Chinese term for someone who is gay.

Until then, Huang had not thought twice about her mother’s relationships with women.

“My impression when I was little was that she was always surrounded by girlfriends. That she liked girls and was friendly with them,” she told AFP.

“That one sentence sowed a seed of doubt in me. Why is that called abnormal?”

On the outside

Huang, 39, says she also felt like an outsider due to her family’s unconventional lifestyle.

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From the age of six, she and her younger sister worked in the capital Taipei with her mother as part of her duties as a priestess for Taoism – Taiwan’s dominant religion.

The family specialised in a ritual called “leading the dead,” a song and dance performance believed to guide the soul to salvation and staged at funeral parlours and gravesides.

Huang says the occupation is considered a lowly blue-collar job and she felt her peers looked down upon her.

By the time she was 10, she had stopped attending school. Her mother left Huang’s abusive father – who she had been married off to at a young age – and did not enrol her in classes in their new neighbourhood.

Her film is an attempt to encourage younger generations who feel isolated or undervalued, she says.

“Kids who don’t go to school, people who ‘lead the dead’, a child with a tongzhi mother – all of them are worth more than the label society gives them,” Huang told AFP.

Violent undercurrents

Huang’s mother – Hung Yue-nu, known as Anu – never tried to hide her sexuality after splitting from her husband and only had relationships with women after that.

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Taoist priests in Taiwan. File photo: Suzuki1314 via Wikimedia Commons.

But equally she never discussed it with her daughter, who says her mother was always distant.

While the pair did not fight, Huang felt ignored as her mother lavished attention on her girlfriends. She was also resentful about not attending school like other children.

“Our relationship seemed peaceful on the surface, but violent undercurrents raged beneath,” Huang said.

In her film, she tries to broach the divide.

The film was described as a “courageous portrayal” of her family’s story by Berlin’s Teddy Award jury.
Huang narrates the movie and her mother, ex-girlfriends and family members are all interviewed.

Renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, who made award-winning film “The Assassin”, is executive producer.

Anu first watched herself in the film’s world premiere in Taipei, ahead of Taiwan’s 2016 Golden Horse Awards, where it was nominated for best documentary.

“She sat next to me and I could tell she was holding back tears,” Huang said.

Gay marriage debate

Huang became interested in filmmaking at the age of 20, when a director came to shoot her as part of a piece about young funeral performers.

She then took film courses at a community college and began to explore her emotions about her mother for the first time.

“I learned another way to observe the world,” she told AFP.

Huang, who is now mother to a five-year-old daughter, says communication with Anu is still not perfect, but is better than in the past.

“The film was not only about me understanding my mother, it was about her understanding me,” she says.

Huang also hopes her film will spur conversations on gay rights and issues around education and single parenthood.

She believes the government should work harder to push the gay marriage bill, despite opposition from conservative groups.

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A protest against same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Photo: J. Michael Cole.

But Anu appears to have little interest in the debate, says Huang.

She once brought her mother to Taipei’s huge annual gay pride parade.

Despite the party atmosphere, Anu soon became bored and wanted to go and play chess with her friends, Huang says.

“Perhaps her state of mind is the most ideal – that one does not need to make a statement to prove one’s value,” she says.

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