translated by Geof Aberhart, proofread by Stefanie ESCHENLOHR and TSAI Wan-ying
In Chinese societies, death is something that is never to be spoken of. Traditional beliefs hold that when a life ends, the best option is for the body to be interred whole to rest in peace; some people, however, choose to let their bodies teach others after death, helping any number of students become dedicated, professional doctors through hands-on lessons. Maso Chen's The Silent Teacher is a documentary about these bodies that have been left for the benefit of medical science.
The story begins with a family. XU Yu-e is one of the cadaverous “silent teachers” at Fu Jen Catholic University. Through an interview with her husband LIN Hui-zong, we get an understanding of the loss of a loved one and how his relationships with both his wife and the family have changed. The film paints a picture of LIN, showing him talking with friends, smiling and laughing; whenever his wife comes up, he says that she's“gone off to be a teacher.”At first glance, LIN appears positive and to be taking things in stride, but from the approach of the anatomy class his wife“teaches”through to her eventual cremation, we gradually come to see the depths of emotion beneath. Faced with the final goodbye and never being able to see his wife again, he ultimately breaks down into tears. The emotional ups and downs of the film also quietly affect the audience watching.
The Silent Teacher follows XU from embalming through dissection to cremation, showing the students and teacher learning from her while also showing the changes in LIN's emotional state. Through the documentary, director CHEN hopes to inspire viewers to look at their own lives, and to learn to be faithful to their decisions even as life finally draws to an end. To CHEN, making the film was like an exploration of the meaning of life.
Avoiding Sensationalism and Focusing on Family
Previously CHEN had completed a 60-minute cut that had more scenes of melodrama and sorrow and with less processed sound. After viewing this cut, audiences were clearly moved, but CHEN began to ponder whether this version put too much emphasis on death. This was not what he really wanted to communicate to audiences. And so he put together a recut version which, while still at its core about death, focused more on family relationships and feelings with less in the way of scenes and sounds of tragedy. CHEN began to dwell more on the emotional side and interpersonal interactions, whether among LIN and his family or among the teachers and students as they confront their “silent teacher.” The delicate emotions seen proved able to express more than any visuals could.
In the film, CHEN joins the students in courses and rituals, aiming to understand the full process these cadaverous teachers must go through. At first, he felt that the students simply looked at this close encounter with death as“just as course,”the cadaver just a teaching aid and not someone who was once full of life and energy. In the autopsy room, the intense pace of the lessons seemed to cover up the life and contribution of their “silent teacher.” On this, CHEN says,“I considered my job to be to make them really understand this person, her story. She had a daughter and a son, people who loved her, and she donated her body with a particular feeling about things. Given that, I can understand why the students, when confronted with the whole story, would be so shocked.”
Swimming Toward a New Stage
The element of the film that leaves the most profound impression is how scenes of LIN Hui-zong swimming are intercut with his wife's dissection. The two actions combine to convey the concept of progress, with CHEN striving to present images in a more spiritual level—a body floats in the water as though it were a soul floating through the air. This was, at least, the initial idea, but with his funds limited, CHEN was unable to fully realize it the way he wanted to. Once shooting was done, he looked at the material he had and decided to make the most of it. After giving it a lot of thought, he decided to splice together the images of swimming and anatomy. Says CHEN,“LIN floats in one scene like a jellyfish, and I wanted to make him seem like a fetus inside its mother, floating in the womb, symbolizing new life. As a result, that part of the film doesn't have much in the way of narrative, because I wanted to give more thought to the impression the imagery would leave.”
The swimming imagery communicates multiple meanings. LIN is a swimming coach, and swimming is not only his profession, but also something that can encompass a wide variety of emotions and thoughts. It requires the use of both hands and feet as one fights ever onward against the resistance of the water. The dissection imagery, meanwhile, symbolizes a new stage, a new level of life. Through creating a contrast between the two, CHEN is able to communicate a level of spiritual meaning. While documentaries are generally about recording true stories, the addition of a few unusual scenes can make the abstract more concrete and add to the overall effect.
Finding Meaning in Life by Confronting Death
We asked CHEN how he changed before and after filming The Silent Teacher. Taking his time, he explained that before, he had always thought about death as a negative thing and that life and death were in opposition to one another. Now, though, he sees death as part of life, that where there is life, there will be death. At the beginning he questioned the idea of donating one's body after death. Then, while talking it over with his wife, she said something that began to change his mind:“Once someone's dead they don't know about it anyway, so why worry so much about it?”From then, CHEN began to realize that he still wasn't facing death head-on. He and his wife both decided to sign donation consent forms, and from that moment on, he found that any problems or difficulties he faced didn't trouble him as much as they had in the past, and that he was able to take a more open-minded attitude to them.
CHEN stresses that the purpose of the documentary is not to encourage people to donate their bodies. What's really important is that the viewer can come to understand that death is another level of life, contemplate their own attitudes toward death, and really communicate their will to their loved ones, and ultimately, through their own beliefs, choose how they confront death.