“Do you think the gods ever helped our family? Or, should I say, do the gods exist?” asks documentary filmmaker Elvis Lu of his brother, a spiritual medium who stayed behind with their devoutly Taoist parents while Lu left for the city 20 years previously and never returned. Lu admits that he likely never would have come back had his mother not contacted him with an ominous message about sorting out her funeral plans, but while filming seems to come to a new accommodation with his familial relationships guilty that he stayed away so long no longer a resentful young man but one beginning to consider the encroachment of mortality.
Lu’s mother confesses that she had pretended to herself that he didn’t exist, hurt that he rarely answered her calls and never visited home even as he points out that she never came to visit him him Taipei either. She feels she “achieved nothing as a parent” and is most regretful that she could not nurture Lu’s talent because she was forced to work long hours to support the family while also taking care of the household. In the opening conversation Lu had coldly answered the phone assuming his mother had called to ask for money, and the hollowness at the centre of the family is largely caused by Lu’s father’s longterm gambling problem which saw him fritter away most of the family’s property and savings leaving the couple financially dependent on their sons for support. Lu’s brother also feels a degree of resentment towards their near silent father, revealing that he does not want to do to his son what his father’s done to them in leaving them nothing but debt and disappointment. That’s one reason he’s always looking for new ways to support the family and has recently begun farming.
The obvious question when his tomato crop is destroyed by floods is why didn’t he ask the gods for guidance first, only it turns out that he did. As Lu points out, the family has endured long years of suffering despite their piety, if his brother is really so close to them why didn’t they help? It’s a question he obviously doesn’t have an answer for, nor does he have one when his son pleads with him to ask the gods for advice as to what to next with the ruined tomato field. His brother’s pained expression hints that he might have doubts despite being able to talk to the gods in his job as a spirit medium handing out advice on investments and other more Earthly worries for a small donation. The family’s upper floor is home to a large altar with several statues of the gods his mother describes as her only friends during the time that both her sons and husband were absent from the family home. Lu’s mother is tiny and now somewhat advanced in age. The stairs appear difficult for her, yet she climbs them every day to pay obsevance to the gods.
After 20 years in the city all of this religiosity seems even more bizarre to the now adult Lu, but he also also captures ceremonies in the community in which people pray to the gods for health and prosperity suggesting that it’s not so odd after all and that the sense of community may be more important that the rituals themselves. Even so, it’s also true that this almost transactional view of spirituality feeds directly back in to his father’s gambling addiction in which he constantly looks for signs of lucky numbers to place bets or buy lottery tickets. After being diagnosed with glandular cancer and too ill to do much else, Lu’s father still picks up the phone to lay a sizeable bet even while his exasperated wife tries to control her resentment that if only he hadn’t lost his job he’d have had a pension, they’d have kept more of their property, and would all have happier, more comfortable lives.
In any case, through adopting a more neutral position as a filmmaker Lu is able to better interrogate the realities of his family and his own relationship with it. As the documentary progresses, he sometimes appears on screen holding a large camera on a tripod while someone else films him from another angle. What began with frosty resentment slowly gives way to warmth and reconciliation even while underpinned by a melancholy practicality as Lu helps his parents choose pictures to use at their funeral underlining a sense of oncoming loss as Lu finally takes his mother to see the sea and gently tracks her as she walks along the shore, slowly moving away from him.
A Holy Family screens in London 24th March and in Edinburgh 25th March as part of this year’s Hong Kong Film Festival UK.
Original trailer (English subtitles)