DVD Review - Speechless

Pierre-Matthieu Vital in
Simon Chung's "Speechless"
The entire film is set in rural China, but the main character is a Westerner, probably European who is mute. By the end, it's learned that the mute European is named Luke and he's from France. Luke is an exchange student who's come to the Orient to familiarize himself with Putonghua. He's actually not mute. He is able to talk, but something happens, which stops him from uttering another word. It takes the movie over a hour, 84 minutes to be exact, to explain why Luke is mute. Unfortunately, the explanation doesn't explain the muteness at all and only lends to more questions that undermine a lot of what happens in the first hour.

Luke, played by Pierre-Matthieu Vital, gets arrested because he goes for a skinny dip in a public river and then proceeds to walk naked even with children around him. Because Luke refuses to speak, the Chinese cops put him in a hospital because they think he's sick. I don't know if this is meant to be a commentary on the police in rural China, but it's obvious that Luke isn't Chinese. He's most likely an immigrant, an European one that didn't just walk across the border, but the cops don't think to put out an APB. It's not as if there are tons of Europeans wandering rural China. If they asked around at local businesses or the university, and showed his picture, or checked passport records, they could have easily identified him. Yet, the police don't even try.

Instead, Luke is shipped to a hospital where a beautiful, young male nurse becomes attracted to him. The nurse is named Jiang, played by Gao Qilun, and he spends time with Luke and looks after Luke, especially when the rest of the hospital dismisses or mistreats him. It's not as if the hospital staff is mean to Luke, but the staff has to be a certain way with him because Luke's behavior is not helpful when it could be. The staff can't force him to talk and it's learned later that the only reason he won't talk is because he's sad. The hospital staff simply gets frustrated because they can't treat sad.

It's clear that there's something psychologically wrong, so the hospital staff decide to commit Luke to a mental asylum. Luke is drugged and even tied to a bed until the day the staff hands him over. By the end of the movie, it's evident that Luke can speak Chinese and he does understand what's going on, so, at any point, Luke could have stopped this. He could have stopped himself from being arrested. He could have stopped himself from being sent to the hospital. He could have stopped himself from being drugged and tied to a bed. He could have stopped himself from being sent to an insane asylum. Yet, he doesn't. Luke just keeps his mouth shut.

The question is why. Why does he allow all this? The easy answer is because he feels guilty and he feels the need to be punished in some way. Yet, if that were true, why would he allow Jiang to develop feelings for him? Jiang starts to develop romantic attraction to Luke. Jiang is most likely gay, but he never attempts to initiate sex with Luke. He does sleep half-naked in the same bed as Luke two nights in a row, almost cuddling next to him. One would assume they had sex, but I never did. Yet, why would Luke allow things to go that far if he felt guilty?

The explanation of why Luke turns mute revolves around a young woman, a fellow college student named Ning, played by Yu Yung Yung. The events surrounding her is the true story here. The events surrounding Jiang are no less than misdirection or just a sweet diversion, so in the end, I guess it doesn't matter if Luke felt guilty. It's in the final half-hour that we learn that Ning's role is more important and integral. It makes us feel like we wasted a hour with Jiang, but, because of the performances of Gao Qilun and Jiang Jian who plays Ning's boyfriend Han, this movie does have an emotional resonance.

In that final half-hour, we learn that Luke had a relationship with Han who like Jiang never says he's gay but it's clear that Han has feelings for Luke. Director Simon Chung explores this idea of western influence in Oriental culture, the very notion of a gay European seducing a Chinese man who doesn't self-identify as homosexual. There are various countries like Uganda that blame European nations and even the United States for bringing homosexuality into their borders. Chung's film seems to visualize that blame, physically manifest it in this edgy romance. Luke becomes the embodiment of the gay influence that many within these homophobic lands believe would never have existed if not for western immigrants.

If that's really what Chung is after, then Jiang's presence is only superfluous. More importantly, why would the screenplay by Lu Yulai and Simon Chung even have the character of Jiang at all? Jiang is an interesting and sweet person but ultimately not needed.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated But Contains nudity, sexual situations and brief violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.


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