Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Hao Wu | All in My Family

telling the truth
by Douglas Messerli

Hao Wu (writer and director) All in My Family / 2019

Documentary filmmaker Hao Wu packs a great deal of emotional drama into his 2019 documentary film, All in My Family. While the movie attempts little to demonstrate how he might have come out in a sexually unliberated China, it focuses on simply the family dynamics in a way that perhaps expresses far more than the entire cultural spectrum. How does one, after all, open oneself up to sexual differences in a culture that does not permit such expression, but, more importantly, is based on the notion of male privilege and the continuation of male dominance through marriage and patrimony? The male son of any upcoming Chinese family represents its definition, its achievement, and its future—particularly as in Wu’s case when the son is an obedient highly intelligent young being doing well in school? He represents all the often less-educated family dreams of.
      Certainly, the central characters in Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet did not deal with it very well, lying, impregnating a bride who the young gay man married only to please his family, and dishonestly moving forward by adopting, with his gay boyfriend, the child he has fathered, while basically ignoring the woman he had used as a ruse.

      Wu, after admitting his sexuality to his quite domineering and always critical mother, revolts through the Chinese underground music movements and ultimately escapes to New York City, finding love with his partner Eric.
        Given the particularly Chinese, Chengdu (later Shanghai), world, one would think that such a film might seem quite alien to American audiences; but actually, given Wu’s mother’s aspirations, her constant instance upon cleanliness, and her continued attempt to dominate their lives, it had a great deal of relevance for me. The father here is more tolerant than the mother (an opposite situation in my family), but the fiercely determined mother, although world’s apart, was my mother as well, insisting every moment that her children were not quite living up to her demands—although as in this case, underneath the harsh routine, a truly loving being who found it difficult to express it through most of her life.

      The family to whom he comes “out,” is determined to keep his sexual identity quiet—that is until they travel to New York and meet Wu’s far more calm and accepting husband Eric, and, more particularly, when the couple decide to have two children, almost simultaneously, through surrogate mothers. The result is a son and daughter, who makes everyone now realize that Wu can never escape being the “best son,” and must return with children and lover in tow to China, mostly to put them on display to an unknowing family, particularly his grandfather.
       He and his sisters and the one knowledgeable aunt attempt to strategize how to explain that he is traveling his Eric rather than a “secret” woman to whom he has been married. Filming all this in a direct manner, Wu—suggesting that he was, perhaps hiding behind his camera—reveals his own fears and alienations as well as the pain his parents and, later, as the situation begins to unravel, his aunts and other relatives admit to.

    His mother genuinely and quite touchingly demonstrates the ideals she had for her son, which she cannot comprehend have actually been achieved. As Wu himself describes the situation in China at the time of his upbringing, I could only find one book—obviously an out-of-date American psychology text—that described his desires as psychologically deviant. That he survived the journey in such a repressive society is nearly amazing. Yes, he admits, and the Americanized Eric confirms, he is often angry. But then, why shouldn’t he be?
      Yet suddenly confronted with raising two infants, Wu gradually begins to realize just how much one has to give over one’s life in raising children. And even though Eric does not appear at the first meeting with the grandfather, it is fairly apparent that when his husband shows up, the old man is not entirely oblivious, even at age 92, that no wife will ever appear.
       Indeed, the entire family comes to a kind of difficult acceptance, as one by one, Wu asks them probing questions—inquiries I’d like to have addressed to my own parents as well. Yet as his sister admits, this is what being a family is like. And even his mother recoils when he suggests that she and his father fought everyday: that is what families do. “You fight with Eric too!” He gently responds, “But not every day!”

    By film’s end we see that Wu has grown up from his rebellious past to an acceptance of the difficulties of family life, hoping that his own son and daughter will be able to find family love despite its extreme failures. We do perceive that he will attempt to raise these children in a more open and loving way. When asked by his mother, “What will you tell your children when they ask about their mother(s).” he responds: “I will tell them the truth. They have two fathers.” I am sure that is a difficult stretch for a Chinese mother to comprehend. But then it would have been just as difficult, had it happened, for my Midwestern parents. Marion, Iowa and Chengu, China are perhaps not so very far apart as we might imagine.

Los Angeles, July 3, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2019).

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