Writer and Director: Ming-Lang Chen
While set against the campaign for same-sex marriage in Taiwan, this unassuming film, receiving its premiere at the Queer East Festival, examines the more personal politics of a young man finding his voice as he embarks on his first serious relationship. Kevin dares not tell too much to anyone, and Ming-Lang Chen’s film, quiet and sometimes unaccommodating, mirrors this reticence.
Kevin teaches civics at a high school. He’s enthusiastic in his lessons talking of the importance of self-respect and of human rights, but his students are too full of hormones to care and when they suspect their teacher of being gay they begin to make his life difficult.
His home life takes a nosedive at the same time as his new relationship is suddenly filled with problems. Moving out of his mother’s house into his boyfriend’s luxury apartment seemed like a good idea but Kevin asks few questions and strangely doesn’t inquire if Gao has officially split up from his wife. And like every gay man, Kevin soon has to deal with the shadow of HIV/AIDS that threatens both his relationship and his position at work.
But despite these dramatic events, there’s a sedateness and a dignity to The Teacher and the camera only allows us glimpses of Kevin’s life, often without exposition like the odd scene in which he attends the birthday banquet of Gao’s father or the short episode where Gao’s wife enters the flat with a hammer.
Ming-Lang Chen never judges either as we see characters make their own, and often very human, mistakes, and because of this distance the ending of this film is always in doubt and, when it comes, it finishes mid-sentence. Of course, there is a little proselytizing but the script is eager to show a version of real life rather than a vision of an unlikely queer utopia.
As Kevin, Oscar Chiu is excellent and never gives too much away, either to the viewer or his friends and family in the film. His acting is as unassuming as Chen’s direction, and The Teacher is a stronger film because of it. Tzu-hua Ho, as Kevin’s mother, also puts in a good performance, never showing her son just how much she cares in case he runs away for good. As they walk around the market and as Kevin prattles away about Gao, Ho’s face is a such a mixture of indignation and worry, that it’s not entirely clear if she has her son’s best interests at heart.
But of them all, Gao is the most remote and Chin-Hao Chang plays him with a charm that is, nevertheless, possibly full of duplicity. That there’s a darker side to Gao is wonderfully demonstrated by the short scene where he leans over a canister of nitrous oxide breathing in its fumes as if he’s drinking from a water fountain. Only his wife, played by Winnie Shih-Ying Chang, wears their heart on their sleeve, but even her emotional state is measured and subdued.
Despite these performances The Teacher never feels chilly, and even though Kevin remains somewhat of a cipher, Chiu manages to relay his frustrations and joys with the subtlest of facial expressions. And because of this he seems real, almost defeated by a homophobic system that is out to get him everywhere. But he learns from his own lessons, ensuring that there are glimmers of hope for the LGBTQ+ community in Taiwan.