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Review of “A Holy Family” (2022) documentary directed by Elvis A-Liang Lu.
Review of "A Holy Family" (2022) documentary directed by Elvis A-Liang Lu.

Review of “A Holy Family” (2022) documentary directed by Elvis A-Liang Lu.

A personal voyage of returning home.

by Hugo Hamon

After spending 24 years away, filmmaker Elvis A-Liang Lu returns to his family in a rural part of southwestern Taiwan. He is confronted by his parents and brother’s superstitious beliefs. Through this poignant family portrait, ‘A Holy Family’ sheds light on the struggles of Taiwan’s marginalized society and its everyday challenges, from the harshness of rural life to the comfort of superstition. The film has been selected for numerous documentary festivals, including Visions du Réel, États généraux du film documentaire, and FIPADOC in France. ‘A Holy Family’ is Lu’s second film and his most personal one, as he becomes deeply involved in the story.

The story begins with A-Liang receiving a call from his mother, who urges him to return home to discuss arrangements for a funeral. Initially, he plans to assist with taking funeral portraits, but as he observes their daily routines, he starts to document their religious practices. A-Zhi, his older brother, was designated as a medium at the young age of 12. Since then, the entire family has become deeply devout and superstitious. As they face difficulties such as the failure of their farming business, poor harvests, mounting debts, and health issues, their only source of hope and comfort is the altar of 12 Taoist deities in their home and the continuous performance of religious rituals there.

A-Liang challenges his family’s religious beliefs and unquestioned trust in miraculous interventions that promise a never-ending change. He does so by posing direct, thought-provoking questions that they are not accustomed to answering. Initially, this was his attempt to gain a deeper understanding of his family, but it quickly turns into a stance of opposition. He aggressively questions the effectiveness of the gods in helping their family and their true divinity. He especially directs his hostility towards the family’s aging patriarch, who has recklessly lost most of their fortune through gambling and relies on the gods for winning lottery numbers, and towards his mother, who chooses to follow the gods’ recommendations for treating her back pain with hot compresses instead of seeking medical help. However, beneath his anger lies a deep concern for his vulnerable family members and their reliance on faith.

The film primarily features still shots, occasionally interrupted by the director’s inquiries and snapshots of everyday life. This includes moments of silence, awkward scenes, and the emotional display of A-Zhi’s son and his mother’s struggle to climb stairs. The quiet moments between family members highlight the overall mood. In a society where emotions are seldom shown, these unspoken tensions and lack of interaction visually convey the challenges and hardships faced by many in Taiwan, breaking away from the typical portrayal of Taipei.

The director’s personal approach also includes introspection. As the film unfolds, he becomes increasingly engaged. His small attempts to deceive his family by speaking out of the frame diminish and he appears more frequently in the frame, interacting more closely with them. Eventually, a second camera is introduced. The fear of death loosens inhibitions and allows for reflection on the past – their parents’ marriage, their childhood, and the reasons for A-Liang’s departure – leading to moments of regret and expression. The initial division within the family at the start of the film gradually fades as the desire to teach gives way to compassion.

The camera becomes a bridge in this exercise of reconciliation, but also an indispensable pillar in the filiation process of the director, overwhelmed by a torrent of contradictory emotions in the face of a dysfunctional family that has always entrusted its destiny to the bets of money and the will of the gods. The director plunges into a measured, tender and delicate look at this invisible bond that resonates within him and in his identity-building.

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Summarized, “A Holy Family” is a film that explores the themes of family and the passage of time. As A-Liang reunites with his family, the dynamic shifts from conflict to understanding and mutual respect. The movie initially criticizes superstition but ultimately becomes a story of familial reconciliation, documenting the final routine moments of an elderly couple and their efforts to understand each other’s beliefs and struggles. It is a personal exploration of returning home, depicting the rekindling of family bonds despite differences, and an honest depiction of self-discovery through the medium of film.