Film review: The Silent Teacher – new light shed on body donation for science in quietly provocative Taiwanese documentary
Maso Chen’s film offers an intimate look at the grief endured by a man after the body of his wife is donated to a medical university in Taiwan following her death from cancer
It’s neither a gruesome spectacle nor the emotional tear-jerker its life-and-death premise often serves up; rather, The Silent Teacher documents calmly and in a matter-of-fact way a case of body donation in Taiwan. While it never poses big, existential questions to the relatives and medical students interviewed, this is as provocative a documentary as they come.
The film revolves around a middle-aged swimming coach from Chiayi, Lin Hui-tsung, whose late wife Hsu Yu-e’s body – the “silent teacher” of its title – has been donated to the College of Medicine at Fu Jen Catholic University in New Taipei City. It offers episodic impressions of Lin’s daily life in the period Hsu’s body is embalmed, dissected by students in anatomy classes, and finally buried more than two years after her death from cancer.
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As director Maso Chen Chi-han’s camera follows Lin on his long journeys to visit his deceased wife during the year-long embalming process, the audience witnesses intimate scenes of Lin talking to the body and reporting on their adult children’s well-being – as if his wife was just a patient in a coma. In such moments, The Silent Teacher comes across as a heart-wrenching portrait of a loving husband whose grief has been disproportionately prolonged.
Even with its brisk 74-minute running time, the film manages to shed light on different sides of this family’s life. While there is sometimes palpable friction in the interaction between Lin and his daughter, an occasional interview subject who becomes increasingly conflicted over her parents’ decision to donate their own bodies, Lin’s son, almost silent, is only ever seen playing games on his desktop computer.
Besides the Lin household, Chen has attempted to provide different perspectives on body donation through various other subjects – including the embalmer, the anatomy professor and a student enrolled in her class – but his film is, perhaps inevitably, most intriguing when Lin is in front of the camera. For grief is an experience with which others can empathise but which is felt first-hand only by the bereaved relatives.
Indeed, there isn’t a more powerful moment in the film than the one when Lin suddenly breaks down in tears in front of the students, who appear utterly shocked to discover that the man has lost his wife and there’s no way to put up a relaxed and composed front, however hard he’s trying.
The Silent Teacher opens on September 14
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