The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón, Juan Martín Hsu, 2021)

Named for the classic song by Teresa Teng that connects the mother and son at its centre, Juan Martín Hsu’s documentary/fiction hybrid The Moon Represents My Heart (La luna representa mi corazón) sees the director himself making two trips from his home in Argentina seven years apart to see his mother in Taipei in part in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of his father when he was six years old. It may be a minor spoiler to reveal that the truth remains frustratingly out of reach though he perhaps discovers other, equally hidden, familial traumas in the complicated history of post-war Taiwan. 

Martín and his brother Marcelo were born in Argentina where their parents ran a restaurant but his mother later elected to return to Taiwan while they stayed behind. The earlier visit in 2012 is apparently the first in the 10 years since his mother left, the difficulty of obtaining visas and the expense being the reasons he gives for leaving it so long. His next trip, however, is not for another seven years, he and his brother instantly remarking on the various ways his mother may or may not have aged. Martín seems to want to talk about his father, but his mother would rather not drag up the past. In fact so averse is she that she’s developed a habit of cutting the faces of those she doesn’t like or want to remember out of her photos which is why the boys complain they don’t have any of their father. While chatting about that, she advances that their father was murdered because of an extramarital affair he’d been having with a local woman, later claiming that he may have had a drug problem or been involved with organised crime. 

Mostly what she tells her son is that she was unhappy, having left a previous marriage because her husband was intensely patriarchal refusing to allow her go on working after becoming his wife. She met Martín’s dad after persuading her first husband to allow her to work at a restaurant and left with him for Argentina pregnant with her first husband’s child, Diego. But in Argentina her new husband was little different, actively preventing her from learning Spanish while also discouraging her from associating with other Chinese-speaking migrants, especially men. The boys speak to her in awkward Mandarin with the assistance of smartphone dictionaries while she complains that her Spanish was never good enough even after she began running the restaurant on her own. “You two wouldn’t be able to spend “la vida” in Taiwan” she explains, “just like your mum couldn’t spend “la vida” in Argentina”. 

Martín’s mother keeps telling him to leave it alone, that he might not like what he finds he if keeps poking into his father’s death though as we find out later he has own traumatic memories of the night his father died along with a burning desire to understand why as if hoping to unlock the secrets of his history. In a raw hotel room exchange, his brother complains that he doesn’t feel part of this extended Taiwan family and is upset that Martín threatened to disown him if he refused to take part in the documentary, feeling a little tricked in having agreed to come only to be forced to participate while his brother seemingly ignores his discomfort. Yet while looking for his father Martín discovers a darker history of his grandfather’s suffering during the White Terror adding new layers to a legacy of familial trauma in the buried history of his maternal family as complicated as it already seemed to be. 

In between each of these difficult conversations and meetings with family members, Hsu splices brief fiction shorts along the theme of exile, the first featuring a returnee who emigrated as a young man leaving a lover behind who is now it seems about to marry someone else but carrying regrets, while another sequence follows a young woman preparing to go abroad but feeling terribly guilty about abandoning her mother. At times the sense of cultural dislocation seems unbreachable as the brothers accompany their mother and her partner to karaoke sessions and tourist excursions but then there’s the song and its universal ability to connect, Martín’s mother singing it firstly with a guitar and later a microphone almost like a long forgotten lullaby. Martín may not unlock the secrets of his father’s death, but does perhaps gain a new understanding of his mother, a resilient woman but also a perpetual victim of a patriarchal society, an oppressive regime, and finally of distance in the separations emotional and physical between herself and her sons. 

The Moon Represents My Heart screens in San Diego on Nov. 1 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng – The Moon Represents My Heart

The Skin I Live In – Summer Screen at Somerset House

Wednesday night saw the opening of the Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House which launched with the UK premiere of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito). This marks the first reunion of Almodóvar and Banderas since 1990’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down!. It’s also the first time Almodóvar has stepped into the horror genre, so expectations were running fairly high.

They were not disappointed.  This is quite simply a brilliant film, dark, disturbing, but also displaying that trademark Almodóvar humour. Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to review as it’s best to know absolutely nothing at all about the plot before going in. It’s a real return to form for Almodóvar after the slightly disappointing Broken Embraces, this is a film with plenty to say that’s also wickedly entertaining. Highly recommended, do not miss this!

Pepi, Luci, Bom… + Q&A with Alaska

Pedro Almodóvar’s debut film may not be as polished as his later work, in fact it may be a bit messy and very rough around the edges but the trademark energy, wit, and charm are all here, and in abundance. Pepi (Maura), is listening to some music and playing with a sticker book when a policeman calls because he’s been noticing her funny looking plants. Fearing prosecution Pepi offers him other compensations, but the policeman takes things further than she was thinking, raping her and ‘stealing’ the virginity which she’d been planning to sell! Seeking revenge, Pepi enlists the help of her friends in a punk group, including Bom (Alaska), to beat him up, but it doesn’t quite go to plan. Later Pepi runs into the rapist policeman’s wife, Luci, (Silva) and convinces her to give her knitting lessons, where she finds out that Luci is a masochist upset that her husband treats her like his mother. These are our three crazy girls trying to make it in La Movida. The film is extremely funny, though dipping a little into poor taste at times which may spoil it a little for some. Even if it’s not an especially well made film, and its lack of budget and complicated production circumstances are very much in evidence it’s still a lot of fun and it’s very interesting for fans of Almodóvar’s more recent work to look at where it all started.

After the film the BFI brought out the actress and singer Alaska (Bom) to talk and answer a few questions about her work on this film. She began by commenting on the film’s genesis, that she was offered the part because she was friends with some artists that were also friends of Almodóvar’s and had read the script and recommended her. As there was no money at all to make the film filming would take place when enough money had been raised to buy the negative, consequently the film took a few years to actually complete filming here and there when possible. Other than Carmen Maura and Felix Rotaeta most of the cast were not professional actors but friends and other people from that particular underground scene at the time. Someone from the audience asked if she’d influenced her character seeing as there was a superficial similarity there with Alaska’s also being in a punk group, to which she replied no. She provided her own clothes/look etc seeing as there wasn’t a costume designer or stylist or even any money for costumes but the character was already 100% scripted before she got the part and Almodóvar was very strict about sticking to his script and did not allow any deviations from it whatever. However she did mention that the seen with the postman was originally intended to just be ‘hello’ but that the actor decided to go for it, much to the consternation of the producer because they only had the right amount of film for what was already planned out, but Almodóvar liked it so it worked out in that instance. A few questions also raised the question of how Alaska felt at the time regarding the changes in Spanish Society, whether she felt herself to be living in momentous times, she replied that being only fifteen or so at the time she just didn’t really react to it in that way. She felt sure that other people did, but being so young she was just really living her life. Someone then asked how she felt about Spanish society at the moment and she answered that she was old enough now to see that each generation criticises the next one for failing to react enough but perhaps it was just a case of times moving on and general apathy. Another questions asked if the film was representative of the youth of Spain during La Movida but she she pointed out that no, this was a definite minority subscene of people that were seen as ‘weird’ and that maybe the film was adopted by youth culture a bit later but at that moment didn’t really reflect it at the time of making. The question of reviews and reaction to the film was also brought up and it was pointed out that the film was more or less panned everywhere, there was not a good reaction anywhere. The film was screened at a couple of festivals where it received an adverse reaction particularly from feminist critics. One of the last questions asked for clarification on the film’s message and purpose, which in Alaska’s opinion (one that she was sure Almodóvar would share) were nil. She felt that if there was a message or purpose it was that there wasn’t one, and if anything simply a statement of intent – we are here and this is who we are, this is how we choose to live. What better message could there possibly be?

Law of Desire

Pedro Almodvar’s 1987 movie, Law of Desire, is a deeply felt meditation on the nature of love and longing which still manages to pack in all of the director’s usual flair and wit. A film director gets picked up in a disco by an unhinged fan whilst his boyfriend is on holiday. He tries to break off with guy 2 because he’s really in love with guy 1, but guy 2 has quite considerable problems. Also add into the mix the director’s trans-sexual sister and the little girl she’s become defacto guardian of and you end up with quite a complicated set of situations. Fantastic!