#ccinema reviews: a dog barking at the moon

words by zoee
04.10.2019

The film industry has had its fair share of LGBTQ+ movies in the past few years and has been blessed with widely celebrated Hollywood classics like Call Me by Your Name and Shortbus. Thanks to the Singapore Film Society, the 11th year of the Golden Village Love and Pride Film Festival is back, bringing a slew of independent LGBTQ films on our shore. We’ve had the privilege of watching one of the films, A Dog Barking at The Moon, a film that hangs heavy and touches on many issues, ranging from the lingering aftereffects of China’s one-child policy to the sometimes blinding restraints of religion. Today, we’re choosing to focus on the key issue present in the film – the traditional anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment.

A Dog Barking at The Moon is the brainchild of young Chinese director Xiang Zi. It centers around Xiaoyu, who is pregnant with her first child, and who brings her foreign husband home to China to meet her parents. We find out then that Xiaoyu’s mother, Jiumei, is struggling with her marriage to Tao, who has been forced to suppress his homosexual desires. The miscarriage that Jiumei went through before Xiaoyu was born also causes great unrest in the family, especially when the baby would have been born a son. All of this ends up resulting in tepid exchanges between all three family members. The tension in the family only worsens when Jiumei joins a cult in hopes that she can cure Tao’s homosexuality, something she regards a mental illness. At the end of the film, we find out that Jiumei was previously romantically attached to a woman as well and suppressed her homosexual feelings to fit society’s expectations of her marrying a man and having children.

The film and script bring to the forefront issues like traditions and lingering complexities, many of which are the result of older laws and regulations. Its focus is spotlight emphasized on these issues and the cinematography is well-executed in that it perfectly underscores the focus without it being too blatantly obvious. Much could be said about the form of the film. For instance, the non-linear timeline is very interesting. Zi opts to pepper in different scenes from different points of time in the family members’ lives. This teases the audience and forces them to focus on what is happening at the moment. Zi’s random inserts of the stripped-back aspects of a stage play then heighten the focus on the issues. Take for example, when the family was in the car and right in the middle of an argument about family issues, it is all highlighted because the misc-en-scene is so bare, and that leaves the focus only on the people in the scene. The addition of a stage play also highlights the awareness of the fourth wall and breaks the barrier between reality and film, making us acutely aware that the issues that affect these characters are real and affect us as a society as well.

The sound mixing of the film is also applaudable. Like the rest of the filmographic qualities, the sounds are minimal and rather bare in carefully selected moments. The audience becomes hyper-attentive to the smallest everyday nuances like the clinking of chopsticks against a bowl, or even the flipping of pages because that is what stands out in the silence. The audience will start to feel like they are in the scene, stewing in the moment with the rest of the characters. Once again, the issues also start becoming applicable to those watching. Back to the aforementioned scene where the family is in the car in the midst of the argument, all we hear is silence in the background and their voices and therefore, the arguments, are illuminated. This brings all our attention to the argument happening then and we can truly focus on the issue being discussed.

With so many cinematographic decisions that draw our attention to the issues at hand, it becomes a timely film for us to watch, especially when the conversation around these issues become difficult to handle. The film stands out in its relatability because, in most Asian cultures, the topic of homosexuality of LGBTQ+ issues remain controversial and taboo, and one’s coming out might be treated with the same homophobia and rejection as Tao was. A member of the community might even have internalized homophobia, like Jiumei, and turns to the guise of religion for relief. Such prejudice is prevalent in today’s China and so much so that Xiang Zi had to rework the presentation of her script so that she could get past the strict censorship laws. For the synopsis to pass through censorship, Zi renamed the father’s boyfriend as the father’s lover, banking on the ambiguity of the sex of the lover to edge past the anti-LGBTQ+ censor. She also faced difficulties when searching for funding for the film but thankfully, made it with the help of a supportive community.

The film is a truthful portrayal of the sticky subject of homosexuality in a society that is so deep-rooted in traditional culture and this portrayal stays real, whether it is in the painful depiction of pride, resulting in a refusal of divorce, or the uncomfortable conversations where the mother tries coming out to her daughter. The apprehensive portrayal of warming to the idea of coming out or having a homosexual family member retains verisimilitude, especially in an Asian cultural context. A Dog Barking at the Moon is so successful not because it unabashedly approaches these touchy topics but exactly because it does not.

Films like this one play such a crucial role in raising discourse about issues and the Singapore Film Society is proud to be returning with their 11th year of the Love and Pride Film Festival, with more films just like this one. The festival will take place from 10th to 20th October 2019, and will showcase a slew of LGBTQ-focused independent titles connected with the theme of ‘Sparking Change’. The theme seeks to spark productive conversations on issues faced by the LGBTQ community and encourage a societal change in attitudes.

The 11th edition of the Love & Pride Film Festival kicks off with a screening of Tremors for the festival’s opening night. Directed by Guatemala’s Jayro Bustamante, following the resounding success of his debut film Ixcanul in 2015, the weighty film follows the story of the coming out of an evangelical father which leads to the discovery of a profoundly repressive society and examines the clash between gay rights and religion.

Another highlight in this year’s roster is Port Authority, which debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Set against New York’s underground ballroom scene, the movie explores a coming-of-age romance when a boy falls in love with a transgender girl, leading to questions around identity and belonging. The film stars Fionn Whitehead – lead actor in the 2018 Oscar Nominee for Best Motion Picture of the Year Dunkirk – alongside Lenya Bloom – the first transgender lead actress of colour to headline a film at the Cannes Film Festival