“In my Chinese family, love means worries.”
Director Hao Wu’s autobiographical Netflix documentary All in My Family paints a moving portrait of what it means to experience sexuality in all the richness of culture, tradition, and familial love. As a gay Chinese man, Hao Wu’s work refreshingly offers an anti-Euro-centric perspective on the matters of same-sex marriage, coming out, and gay surrogacy. Far too often in film criticism, sexuality is monolithically measured against white Euro-centric standards: authenticity is equivalent to being fully out, and visibility is equated with progress. As such, Asian countries – where Taiwan remains the only country in our continent to legalise same-sex marriage – are crudely slapped with simplistic accusations of being too traditional, conservative, and regressive.
It is easy to say that we are regressive, particularly when invisibility and erasure remains the norm for people like me. Where I am from, gay sex is criminal. Marriage is a concept I have never been able to conceptually grasp, and I do not see it being concretised in my lifetime. I am not saying that all these prohibitions are desired goalposts, but I fear that when we are labelled as traditional and nothing else, we lose telling the world how we negotiate our sexuality with all the heterogeneity of our culture. I fear that traditional is merely a thinly veiled word used to disguise the violence of Euro-centric modernity, a violence which has subsisted on exploiting countries like mine for decades. I fear that traditional eclipses our ability to understand, and explore how gay people like me learn to love in the trenches, and still find joy despite everything else. Lastly, I fear that the media will be saturated with white queer narratives, at the devastating risk of forgetting stories like mine. We exist, and that should be enough for us to matter.
To this end, Hao Wu’s autobiographical work centralises the importance of Chinese culture in his understanding of sexuality – we cannot understand one without the other. While the documentary highlights the legal privileges he has enjoyed while living in the United States, it never resorts to wholly condemning the legal restrictions imposed on him back in his homeland. Instead, just as Hao Wu attempts to reconcile with his family after more than twenty years of residing in the States with his partner, the documentary also unabashedly depicts the joy in being Chinese and gay. It begins by revelling in the constant bickering which takes place at a Chinese dinner table, ranging from whose child is engaged, to Wu’s grandpa (oblivious to his sexuality) demanding that he get married and bear a few grandchildren. The music which underscores these scenes is light-hearted, upbeat, and joyful, thus suggesting that these expectations do not impede the expression of his sexuality, but rather is an intrinsic part of how Chinese parents express their love for their children, irrespective of sexuality.
Often, Chinese parents express their concern and worry through such bickering and other little actions, instead of outright sentimental declarations. This extends to the acceptance of Wu’s sexuality as well. When Wu brings his mother over to the United States for the first time, we do not see an explicit declaration of acceptance of his partner Eric. Instead, she obsessively cleans their apartment, worrying over how dirty it is without her oversight. And as Wu’s father says: “Worrying is a great tradition for us Chinese.” Worrying is love and by extension, a kind of muted acceptance that Wu has come to embrace of his parents. Close-ups are also used when Wu’s parents convey statements that one would consider heartbreaking to a gay person. For instance, Wu’s mother declares:
“I won’t mention you being gay, okay? Now, I can forgive you. I simply love you too much. So I have to accept what you choose, right?”
Of course, we rail against the idea of sexuality as a choice. Conversely, I also find the opposing counter-argument that sexuality is ‘natural’ heavily flawed. Our sexuality should not have to be ‘natural’ or immutable in order to garner acceptance. Yet, from Wu’s perspective, such flawed nuances in the way his mother articulates sexuality pales in comparison to the love she shows for him. To illustrate, the shaky close-ups filmed using a hand-held camera focuses on his mother’s tears while she says this, somehow placing primacy in her love for him above all else. This parental love is fierce, and the documentary suggests that it outweighs her supposedly dated concepts of sexuality. Maybe she does view his sexuality as a choice, and maybe that rubs off the wrong way for some of us who are intimately acquainted with postmodern queer theory. Nevertheless, she simply loves him too much. And it is this love that Wu comes to celebrate, be it implicitly conveyed through her obsessively shining his shoes, or over-feeding his kids at the dinner table. Outright declarations of acceptance, while prevalent in Western discourses of sexuality, can also be conveyed through such tender actions in Chinese culture.
Food, in particular, is a running theme in Wu’s documentary. In Chinese culture, food is equivalent to love. Wu’s mother cooks for him when visiting the States, and when Wu returns to China, the preparation of food is where acceptance is waged. It is in the kitchen where Wu’s mother says that his partner Eric should be introduced to the family “as a close colleague and a good friend.” While we may tend to see such a statement as a disavowal of sexuality, the juxtaposition of the preparation of food and this particular line highlights that she still loves her son above all else. She accepts him, even if she cannot quite find the right language to show it. This love is enough for Wu.
In Asian countries, acceptance is discrete, implicit, and sometimes frustrating. For most of us, acceptance is merely a fantasy of our own making. Hao Wu’s family is an optimistic portrait of acceptance, even if it comes with its own flaws. All in My Family chooses to reconcile Chinese culture with Wu’s experience of sexuality, thus articulating a definition of sexuality that refuses to rely on Euro-centric standards. In doing so, it opens up an avenue which increases the possibilities of portraying sexuality beyond Euro-centric narratives. And maybe from here onward, we can begin to tell our stories as they are.
by Sharmane Tan
Sharmane is a film/tv writer based in Singapore. She is currently an editor at Much Ado About Cinema and an undergraduate in English Literature. Outside of writing, she is deeply passionate about Gentleman Jack, lesbian autobiographical narratives, and Florence Welch’s entire existence. Her favourite films are Moonlight, Things To Come, A Woman Under the Influence, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. You can find her on twitter @jenvoievaiser.