FILM REVIEW: The Shepherds – Queer East Film Festival

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Director: Elvis Lu

Sexuality and religion have always had a complicated relationship but for LGBTQ+ Christians in Taiwan their campaign for acceptance, understanding and the legalisation of same-sex marriage has been a complicated one. Following a group of religious leaders associated with the Tong-Kwang Church, Elvis Lu’s 70-minute documentary The Shepherds is an involving examination of prejudice and its consequences.

Guo-yao Huang and his partner (implied wife but never explicitly stated) run the Tong-Kwang Church, spending much of their time advocating for LGBTQ+ rights through workshops, talks and taking the platform at protest marches. Shu-min Zeng is a pastor who worked at the church for two years and now lives in virtual poverty while still performing marriage ceremonies, while Hsiao-en Chen works with the church as an activist and public speaker setting up a support group for mothers to share their stories.

Set in 2015 and 2016 in the lead-up to Taiwan’s legalisation of same-sex marriage, the first Asian country to do so, The Shepherds takes an unusual perspective by looking at sexuality and acceptance through the support of the church. And while the passion of its three leads is clear, Lu adds context by showing the vehemence of the opposition as established Christian ministers join forces to insist their more restrictive interpretation of the Bible and love is definitive.

There is a fly-on-the-wall quality to Lu’s film that essentially documents the work of the Church and several of its associated members who we see both at work and at home. Some of that personal insight seems tangential as Huang and his partner travel home to Hong Kong for the first time in six months to find what we presume are their sons and a piles of unpaid bills as well as washing in their flat. It is a strange thread without further explaining why they are forced to travel and its effects on the stability of the family and how it may compromise the work that they do.

Where the personal becomes more important is for Pastor Zeng whose sexuality directly affects his economic situation and we see him attempting to fix a framed tarpaulin to his roof to save on air-conditioning costs while friend Chen Hsiao-en brings him shopping, a gift he is reluctant to accept and quite why he no longer works with Tong-Kwang is never explained. While a devoted Christian, Zeng’s frailty is inadvertently the strongest message about discrimination in The Shepherds.

Lu also gives little insight into the history and work of the church since its establishment in the mid-1990s and while the build-up to the 2016 legislation is demonstrated through the sustained efforts of these three people and the Tong-Kwang Church is important, the documentary would benefit from a little more narrative to shape the history and significance of their work.

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