Directed by Jordan Schiele
“It hurts me so deeply. Very deeply. I was shocked and don’t know where he get this idea. We never talked this topic. When he spoke out to the world, ‘I’m dying,’ I feel…That’s why he keeps living. He wants to see a perfect wedding. See I set up a new family. I’m always trying to be a good boy. But from the very beginning, I knew that I can’t do it. Finally, one day, I’ll fail.” -Yao, a closeted gay man from Beijing, China, talking about his dying father as he visits his family for the Chinese New Year
The Silk and The Flame is a documentary that nearly broke my heart. I had to stop the film several times while I was watching it because the images on the screen were just so upsetting. And they were so upsetting because they were of real life.
Shot in black and white in a small village in China during celebrations for the Chinese Lunar New Year in 2017, The Silk and The Flame tells the story of Yao, the last of three children to his farmer parents. His older siblings have had families of their own for years now, so Yao is constantly reminded by his elderly parents during his visit home that he needs to get married and start a family too. And even though his dying father refuses to speak and his mother is deaf and mute, they find many other ways to communicate to Yao that he needs to do this and now. But Yao has brought a potential wife home before that the family rejected because they didn’t think she was pretty enough, and he has a new prospect now, but the real reason he still isn’t married is because in actuality, he is gay.
There’s nothing fancy about this documentary. The camera basically just sits there like we, the audience, are just sitting there as a guest with Yao for the visit home. Nothing necessarily movie-like exciting or thrilling happens. There are no obvious set-ups so we will be entertained non-stop while watching the life of a gay man in China. The camera (or really us) just sits there as we watch Yao visit his family as…
His mother builds a fire, but does it badly, causing too much smoke.
Yao makes a really bad snowman with his nephew.
The whole family eats a really delicious looking dinner and the nephew complains that it’s too salty.
Yao tries to shave his ill father, but can’t get the razor blade on right, so his mom takes over.
Yao discusses how President Trump is a “big troublemaker” with a former teacher.
The whole family watches TV while eating.
See, typical, boring homecoming family stuff. We humans always make visits home more exciting for the camera, especially now that there is Facebook and other various forms of social media to display our oh so exciting family lives, but this movie does what cameras don’t do a lot of nowadays; tell the harsh, boring, sad, funny, heart-wrenching truth about real life. That’s really about it when it comes to this documentary. It’s just about real life. Nothing happens in this film, yet everything happens in this film, because we are getting a real life look into the life of a gay man in China. We are basically walking around in Yao’s shoes while he is visiting his family, feeling his pain about having to keep his sexuality a secret, feeling his anguish about making his parents so unhappy about still not being married, feeling his deep sadness as he tells the audience at one point, “Just think of my two problems: I can’t find a wife, or a boyfriend.” The greatest screenwriter in the world couldn’t have written anything more emotionally heart-wrenching than that because it’s real life. This is a real man, living a real life and that is all the camera shows us, no bells or whistles here; and it’s heartbreaking because all Yao wants to do is find a boyfriend, but in his world, that probably isn’t possible because he’s in China and his government and culture and family have made this need, want, desire seem impossible.
Just a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth year in a row, my wife and I got to check the “married” box when filling out our income tax returns, because even though we’ve been together for 18 years now, we didn’t have that right as a same sex couple to check that “married” box until 4 years ago. And I was just as excited about being able to check that box this year as I was four years before. And I found myself wondering, would I always get this giddy at having this right? Will I always be thankful that I can check “married” on my income tax returns with my finally-legal-in-all-50-states wife? I mean, it’s kind of a boring, mundane, real life thing to be excited about, but after watching The Silk and The Flame, I was reminded that this very boring, mundane, real life thing was one of the greatest blessings of my life, because there are so many people like Yao still in the world that don’t have this boring, mundane, real life right. We have fought so hard and won so many battles, but with people like Yao in the world still so painfully struggling with their sexuality because they have a government, culture, family holding their true selves back, we still, sadly, have such a long way to go.
The Silk and The Flame made its world premiere February 19, 2018 at the Berlin International Film Festival. Hopefully I’ll be able to add more information to this review later about where you can view this amazing documentary for yourself. Until then, also check out the SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) website for more about The Silk and The Flame.