Dir: Simon Chung
Hong-Kong-China: 92 min • Heart Production • 2012
Last night saw the international premiere of Simon Chung’s third feature, Speechless, at the BFI 26th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It’s notable for a Chinese film with a gay theme that it was filmed (and is set on) the mainland, straying beyond the usually safe boundaries of Hong Kong Island. It’s a film of two halves, beginning as a slow-burning mystery-cum-romance before turning into a love-triangle thriller, but it doesn’t really manage to pull off making those parts into a cohesive whole.
A naked Westerner walks into a river and is washed up on the banks of a nearby town. The police take him in but he refuses to speak, or is incapable of speech. Eventually they transfer him to the local hospital where he is befriended by Jiang, a handsome young nursing assistant, who brings him home-made steamed buns, and a tentative friendship develops.
Before the silent foreigner can be transported to a mental institution Jiang helps him escape and takes him into the countryside where they visit the places Jiang spent his childhood. They begin to unlock things in each other, and this leads them back into how Luke, as we discover the foreigner is called, came to the decision to drown himself.
A French exchange student, Luke started an affair with Han who, along with his girlfriend Yun, is a member of a local Chinese Christian church. When Yun discovers what Luke and Han are up to she takes it upon herself to expose Han publicly and humiliates him to the point of suicide. The director cleverly tells this back-story from Yun’s point of view first before revealing the whole picture. Unfortunately this requires an overlong flashback that disrupts the narrative drive, already dislocated by the change of pace and tone once the more melodramatic thriller elements are brought in. The plot becomes somewhat overwrought and the young actors are just not strong enough to carry it.
The ending of the film is deliberately ambiguous and raises more questions than it answers about both the characters’ relationships and the relationship between China and the West. Luke’s attitude to his relationship with Han is different because he’s more relaxed about being gay and it’s as if the fact of Luke’s nationality is a deliberate strategy to contrast those attitudes, but also to examine what can happen when cultures with varying degrees of acceptance try to come together.
The film suffers along with its characters insomuch as the difficulties of communication are not just verbal ones.