Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Silence is Golden

Homosexuality remains a largely taboo topic in mainland China, but that hasn’t stopped filmmaker Simon Chung from setting another gay-themed movie there.  Speechless, now available on DVDfrom Breaking Glass Pictures, follows Innocent and End of Love as the writer-director’s latest, most provocative look yet at Asian men who love other men.

The film opens with the discovery of a naked man from the West (French actor Matthieu Vital) along the banks of a Chinese river.  Taken into custody by the local police, the stranger seems either unwilling or unable to speak.  He is transferred to a hospital, where a cute, kindly orderly, Jiang (Gao Qilon), takes an interest in him.  When Jiang learns the new patient is to be committed to a psychiatric asylum, he decides to spirit him away to his uncle’s remote home in the country.

Although the stranger remains speechless (hence the film’s title), the two men bond further and even sleep together in a non-sexual way.  Jiang gradually begins to discover clues to his new friend’s past.  This leads to the recounting of a secondary love story between Luke -- which is eventually revealed to be the patient’s name -- and a fellow university student named Han (the very attractive Jiang Jian).  Unfortunately, Han has a girlfriend, Ning (Yu Yung Yung), who proves to be dangerously jealous.

Filmed in Mandarin with English subtitles, Speechless provides an intriguing exploration of modern Chinese culture’s acceptance (or lack thereof) of homosexuality and of East-West relations in general.  While there is a minimal amount of sex in the film, what is depicted is about as graphic as a Chinese filmmaker dare show lest they risk the censors’ wrath.  And whereas the romance between Han and the then-still speaking Luke is engrossing, it is the more subtle growth in love and understanding between silent Luke and Jiang that has stayed with me.  Chung also gets strong yet sensitive performances from his young cast members.  See Speechless, and join me in continuing to keep an eye on its bold, talented director.

Of course, more than a few religious institutions remain intolerant of homosexuality too, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints may well be the most repressive.  The LDS’ (or Mormons’) mistreatment of gay members has been explored previously in the 2003 movie Latter Days as well as the powerful play Facing East, (which is currently raising funds toward a film adaptation via Kickstarter through December 14th; please consider contributing).

Jon Garcia’s directorial debut The Falls, available on DVDtoday, is the latest entry in this growing gay-Mormon subgenre.  Relative newcomers Nick Ferrucci and Benjamin Farmer are impressive as, respectively, Elder Smith and Elder Merrill, 20-year old Mormon missionaries assigned as “companions” in Oregon (the film was shot in Portland over two weeks for only $7,000).

Even though Elder Smith has a girlfriend whom he is planning to marry and Elder Merrill is son to one of the church’s highest-ranking leaders, they soon find themselves attracted to each other.  The pair has to keep their relationship secret, however, lest they be publicly exposed and excommunicated.  As Elder Smith hopefully observes while discussing their perilous position with his new BF, “We’re both on the brink of something new.”

The first half of The Falls is noteworthy for its casual, authentic glimpse into the faith and daily lives of LDS missionaries.  It loses its footing somewhat once the new lovers, having tasted forbidden fruit and liked it, also try smoking marijuana and drinking with a military vet they are ostensibly trying to convert.  As the Southern-bred neophyte drawlingly states upon noticing his instructors’ heightened closeness, “You two seem to be in a slightly different disposition.”  Not unpredictably, the men’s affair is discovered and Elder Smith, at least, has to face his local church council.  Ferrucci gives an excellent, heartfelt reading of a particularly well-written monologue during this climactic scene.

The Falls covers much of the same ground as Latter Days when it comes to the struggle between devotion to one’s faith and one’s sexual longings but The Falls is, thankfully, less sensationalistic.  Neither Elder Smith nor Elder Merrill has to endure shock treatments or ice baths here, even if those have been the regrettable, worst-case experiences of some GLBT Mormons.  Here’s hoping and praying that GLBT people of all faiths find acceptance from their communities sooner, not later.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Speechless: B
The Falls: C+
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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