A newly released and already awarded Taiwanese film proves the limits of acceptance of LGBT people; The country became the first in Asia to pass an equal marriage law in May 2019.
The teacher (我 的 靈魂 是 愛 做 的), a feature film by Taiwanese director Ming Lang Chen, won the Golden Horse Awards festival in November 2019, the largest and oldest film festival in the world of Sino-speaking. It tells the story of a young gay school teacher who must face his family, colleagues and lover as he struggles to make his gender identity transparent and accepted by those around him. The film officially premiered on December 6 and is Chen's second feature film, born in Taiwan in 1970, served as a lieutenant in the Taiwanese Army, and then migrated to New York, where he completed his studies at the University Film Department from New York. His first feature film, Tomorrow is coming today (你 的 今天 和 我 的 明天), premiered in 2013 and tells the story of a Taiwanese migrant in New York who explores his own masculinity.
Chen spends most of his time in New York but travels frequently to Taiwan. Chen agreed to give an interview before going to Taiwan for the premiere of “The Teacher.”
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ec4jMf0Lh8 (/ embed)
Filip Noubel: What inspired you to make the movie “The Teacher” （我 的 靈魂 是 愛 做 的）？
Ming Lang Chen: My initial idea was to make a movie about a gay couple in which one is HIV positive, and the other isn't. Eventually, the story evolved, and I decided to make the movie in Taiwan. The main plot follows Kevin, a 26-year-old high school teacher who teaches civic education in Taiwan. He falls in love with another man, and discovers two things about him later: That this man is married to a woman and that he is HIV positive. Kevin is thus faced with a number of challenges: He has to face his own mother with whom he still lives and with whom he talks about the man he loves; then there is the fear of AIDS, and finally he also needs to face his lover's wife. On top of that, someone spreads a rumor at his school that he is HIV positive. The school then tries to force him to resign, as it is illegal to fire someone based on their HIV status in Taiwan. So the main theme is really how one faces pressure at a rather young age. The Teacher is about human communication, it shows a wide range of delicate emotions, I wouldn't say it is just a gay movie.
Ming Lang Chen: My initial idea was to make a movie about a gay couple in which one was HIV positive. In the end, the story evolved and I decided to make the movie in Taiwan. The main plot follows Kevin, a 26-year-old school teacher who teaches civic education in Taiwan. He falls in love with another man and then discovers two things about him, that this man is married to a woman and that he is HIV positive. Then, Kevin faces many difficulties: he must face his mother, with whom he lives and to whom he speaks of the man he loves; Then there is the fear of AIDS, and finally he must face his lover's wife. In addition, someone spreads the rumor in their school that is HIV positive. The school tries to force him to resign, as it is illegal to fire someone for their HIV positive status in Taiwan. So the main issue is really how to deal with pressure at a young age. “The teacher” is about human communication, it shows a wide range of delicate emotions, I wouldn't say it's just a gay movie.
FN: Why do you think your movie won the 2019 Golden Horse Awards Festival award?
MLC: Taiwan is very friendly towards LGBT film production. Every year the the Golden Horse Award, which started in 1962, has at least one or two LGBT-themed movies competing for an award. In 1993, the gay-themed movie Wedding Banquet by Taiwanese and now global filmmaker Ang Lee won the award for best feature film. In 2003, a serial adaptation of Crystal Boys (孽子), inspired the groundbreaking gay novel of the same name by Taiwanese gay author Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇) won the Golden Bell Awards.
As for Winnie Chang, who plays the wife in my film, I believe she won the Best Supporting Actress Award because, even though there are very few scenes involving her, she represents the many layers of this typical situation when gay men marry women out of social and family pressure. She finds herself in a love triangle that was not her choice and is exposed to a lot of pressure. She married into a big family, has to keep up appearances, wants a child and is pressured by her in-laws to do so. Yet she remains tolerant and humane.
MLC: Taiwan gets along with the production of LGBT movies. Every year, at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Awards Festival, which began in 1962, there are one or two LGBT-themed films competing for an award. In 1993, the gay themed film The wedding banquet of Taiwanese and global filmmaker Ang Lee won the best feature film award. In 2003, an adaptation of Crystal Boys (孽子) inspired the innovative gay novel of the same name by Taiwanese gay author Pai Hsien-yung (白先勇) won the Golden Bell Award.
As for Winnie Chang, who plays the wife in my movie, I think she won the award for best supporting actress because, although there are few scenes that include her, she represents the many layers of this typical situation when a gay marries A woman because of social and family pressure. It is in a love triangle that did not choose and is exposed to a lot of pressure. He married and entered a large family, and must keep up appearances, wants a son and his in-laws pressure her. But it remains tolerant and human.
FN: Taiwan is often described as an oasis of LGBT rights in East Asia. Is that the case and does it apply to all Taiwanese society?
MLC: In the capital Taipei, we live in a very open space, we have a large Gay Pride Parade, and so we tend to think that being gay is no big deal. But we need to get outside of this bubble and see what is really happening in society. Because yes, Taiwan is a democracy, but a very young one, just in its early 30s. This is why I chose a main character who is just under 30. I wanted to see what this generation is experiencing, as they are the first to grow in a post-martial law society.
This is why the movie will be distributed across Taiwan in 16 commercial movie theaters. We didn't want to go big and end up with half-empty movie theater rooms. This is an art movie, quite different from Taiwanese mainstream movies that are heavily influenced by the storytelling of TV series. Our hope is that word of mouth will convince audiences who are into indie movies to come and appreciate The Teacher.
MLC: In the capital, Taipei, we live in a very open space, we have a big parade of gay pride, and we tend to think that being gay is not so serious. But we must get out of this bubble and see what really happens in society. Because yes, Taiwan is a democracy, quite young, just thirty years old. That's why I chose a character that is just under 30 years old. I wanted to see what this generation is experiencing, it is the first to grow in a society after martial law.
That is why this film will be distributed in Taiwan in 16 commercial cinemas. We didn't want to make it so big and end up with almost empty rooms. This is an art film, quite different from conventional Taiwanese films that are heavily influenced by the narrative of the television series. Our hope is that word of mouth convinces audiences who like independent films to come and appreciate “The Teacher”
FN: Who opposes LGBT debts in Taiwan now?
MLC: The strongest opposition comes from certain members of religious groups, and mostly Christian people. They have money, are influenced by groups outside of Taiwan, and have a blind belief that homosexuality is wrong, even though the Bible doesn't say that. But there is also another factor: our Asian traditions that keep any talk about homosexuality hush hush. The result is that very few people come out, so people don't get to see or know a gay person in their immediate circles.That's what I wanted to achieve with Kevin; to introduce a person who looks like a neighbor so people can look at his dilemma and say: “I know him!”.
I couldn't imagine that I would see marriage-equality happen in Taiwan, and we have to thank people like Chi Chia-wei who were brave enough to come out publicly. I never felt prouder to be a Taiwanese than the day we passed the marriage equality law.
MLC: The greatest opposition comes from some members of religious groups, and especially from Christians. They have money and are influenced by groups outside of Taiwan, and they have the blind belief that homosexuality is wrong, although the Bible does not say so. But there is also another factor: our Asian traditions that keep everything about homosexuality in reserve. The result is that very few are sincere, so people do not get to see or meet a gay in their immediate circles. It was what he wanted to achieve with Kevin; introduce someone ordinary and so people can see their dilemma and say, “I know him!”
I couldn't imagine that I would see equal marriage in Taiwan, and I should thank people like Chi Chia-wei who have the courage to publicly be honest. I have never felt more proud of being Taiwanese than the day we passed the equal marriage law.