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.
Trailer (English subtitles)
Teresa Teng – The Moon Represents My Heart