With Taiwan passing the first Marriage Equality Law in Asia in 2019, it’s exciting to delve into LGBTQ+ stories from a historically conservative society going through such immense changes. Ming-Lang Chen’s The Teacher (Wo De Ling Hun Shi Ai Zuo De) follows a young Civics teacher name Kevin (Oscar Chiu) who meets an older factory owner, Jin-Wu Gao (Chin-HaoChang), at a bathhouse and embarks on an intense relationship fraught with multiple issues for both. While Kevin experiences homophobic taunts from his students and frequent warnings from his Principal, Gao has a wife (Winnie Shih-Ying Chang) who knows about his sexuality but still wants them to conceive a baby. That Gao has HIV only serves to complicate matters all around.
While featuring honest, passionate performances, the film unfortunately suffers from a plodding pace and an often on-the-nose screenplay. As such, it feels like an issue-driven film instead of a finely detailed character study. We know very little about Gao and how he feels about the many conflicts in his life. He remains fairly quiet and stoic, even when his crises escalate. Perhaps it’s a result of his character’s maturity, but it results in him feeling dramatically inert.
Conversely, Kevin’s character has a terrific arc and his passion and anger builds nicely to a raw face-off scene at a hospital. Where his character ends up also feels like a revolutionary statement, especially for Taiwan. The somewhat frank depictions of gay sex also feel pretty rebellious. Additionally, Kevin has a well-drawn relationship with his mother (Tzu-hua Ho), who loves her son and wants to talk about his concerns way more than he does.
Gao’s wife also has a complicated role as someone who has been hurt badly but wants to support her husband no matter what. A sequence in which she purchases and subsequently uses a hammer quietly showcases the deftness in her performance, which won her an award at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Film Festival. Hers remains the most interesting character, since she’s less a villain and more of a pragmatic and strong presence.
The dynamic between Kevin and his Principal also merits attention. At first he admonishes Kevin for having hair a bit too well-coiffed. Later, when they lay things out on the table, Kevin’s sexuality feels like less of an issue than we may have thought. It, along with the presence of Kevin’s more radical, more visually out best friend, feels like Taiwanese cinema may break open even more after this. If only the central relationship had more layers than what we’re given.
I’m having a hard time being too harsh on this film. It means well but tackles issues we’ve seen far too often in Western culture. In Taiwan, I’m guessing it may have had more of an impact, with stories like this rarely seen until now. We’ve been a little spoiled, resulting in The Teacher feeling a little dated. Still, I’m really glad it exists so that we can welcome Taiwan into the world of queer representation. I hope we see even more subversive works from this emerging country’s queer cinema. Think of The Teacher as their An Early Frost, a little safe but brave. One day, I hope to see their equivalent of The Living End.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Teacher (Wo De Ling Hun Shi Ai Zuo De) is currently playing as part of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival and can be accessed along with a filmmaker Q&A until August 27th via OutfestLA2020.com .