Here's What Family Values Really Look Like

One of the joys of watching world cinema is that it takes you outside your standard frames of reference. In some cases this means stories with fewer guns, gore, and explosions. In other situations, it simply means that the influence of Jesus is never a given.

Consider Draft Day, a short documentary by Josh Kim that follows a handful of ladyboys in Bangkok as they take their chances in the national lottery for military service. Note the care with which military personnel comfort young men as they learn whether they will be exempt or subject to the draft. It's a touching ceremony unlike anything you would ever see in America's armed forces.

When it comes to narratives that challenge the traditional concept of family values, the fresh perspectives gained from world cinema can seem like a breath of fresh air. Here in the United States it seems as if the people who bray the loudest about family values are the people who are incapable of practicing what they preach.

Need an example? Try Minnesota's Archbishop John Nienstedt, who spent $600,000 in church funds to lobby against Minnesota's same-sex marriage initiative and sent anti-gay DVDs (unrequested) to 400,000 Minnesota homes in an attempt to get voters to ban same-sex marriage. In September 2013, Nienstedt claimed that "Satan is the source of same-sex marriage." But on December 17, Nienstedt announced that he was temporarily stepping down from his ministry after allegations surfaced that, during a photo session several years ago, he had inappropriately touched an underage male's buttocks.

Would you leave your underage son alone with this man?

Those of us who have, over the course of our lives, built extended families (whether due to necessity or serendipity) know what a blessing it is for someone to take us into their life. Although many people think of the American family as a 1950s-style nuclear household unit, extended families evolve in curious patterns.

  • Some extended families develop in the traditional sense as children grow up, fall in love, marry, and produce offspring.
  • Others seek to create new families after being thrown out of their homes by hyperreligious parents who object to their lifestyle.
  • Some extended families result from the kind of social networking found in places of employment, bars, and gyms.
  • Others develop around hobbies (birdwatching, film festivals, cooking classes) or volunteer activities.
  • Some extended families develop as casual sex partners begin to play a steadier and more intimate role in a person's personal and/or professional life.
  • Others develop through invitations to join a pre-existing social group.

For people who have come out of the closet (or are still struggling to embrace their sexual orientation), an extended family of LGBT friends is a lifeline that can provide emotional support through thick and thin. Often, the person who can best listen to and understand someone else's problems may not be a blood relation (especially if religious dogma has poisoned the environment). Sometimes a profound shock to one's basic assumptions (or a rude challenge to the conventional wisdom) can even lead to introspection, a change of perspective, and a surprising new lease on life.

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In 2009, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened Facing Windows, a poignant film by Ferzan Ozpetek (a Turkish screenwriter and director with an astonishing ability to cut through to the emotional core of what's happening in people's lives). On first glance, it might be tempting to think that this film is all about love, lust, lost opportunities, and luscious desserts.

Ozpetek initially gained fame in 1997 with Hamam (Steam: The Turkish Bath). Subsequent films have included Harem Suare (1999), Sacred Heart (2005), Saturn In Opposition (2007), A Perfect Day (2008), Loose Cannons (2010), and Magnifica Presenza (2012). I recently had a chance to watch his 2001 film, The Ignorant Fairies (His Secret Life), which proved to be utterly fascinating.

His Secret Life begins as Antonia (Margherita Buy) is seen moving through the galleries of an art museum in Rome. A handsome stranger chats her up and suggests they go back to his place. She politely declines his offer, explaining that she's waiting for her husband, Massimo (Andrea Renzi), who is always late.

Antonia's niece, Nora (Edilberta Caviteno Bahia) has been staying with Antonia for the summer and, although her uncle is often away on business, it would seem that Massimo and Antonia are well off, have a loving relationship, and are comfortably settled in their home. However, when Massimo is unexpectedly killed in a traffic accident, a note found on the back of a painting delivered to their home leaves Antonia convinced that her husband has been having an affair with another woman.

Poster art for His Secret Life

A physician with solid research skills, Antonia is determined to track down the woman and find out about this secret life that her husband kept from her. What she eventually learns is that Massimo (who was bisexual) had been in a relationship with Michele (Stefano Accorsi) for nearly seven years and was considered a key member of Michele's extended family of social outcasts. Among these are:

  • Mara (Lucrezia Valia), a tall blonde transsexual who wants to go home to attend a wedding but fears her family's rejection.
  • Serra (Serra Yilmaz), a chubby woman with blue hair who was raped in her youth.
  • Emir (Koray Candemir), Serra's free-spirited bisexual younger brother who makes his living as an itinerant freelance photographer.
  • Ernesto (Gabriel Garko), a close friend who is dying of AIDS.
  • Luisella (Rosaria De Cicco), a blonde supermarket cashier.
  • Sandro (Luca Calvani), a young man with a crush on Michele.
  • Israele (Carmine Recano), a new friend recently introduced to the group.

Coping with her husband's betrayal while discovering the rich and loving life he shared with his "other" family is an eye-opening experience for Antonia. Initially dazed and confused by her discovery, she soon ends up helping to care for Ernesto while trying to understand how her husband could have had a relationship with Michele about which she was totally clueless.

Ozpetek includes a wonderful touch that involves a book of Nazim Hikmet Ran's poems, which Massimo had once gone out of his way to purchase as a gift for Antonia. It turns out that Massimo knew absolutely nothing about poetry (the passion for the poet's work was unknowingly shared by Antonia and Michele).

His Secret Life is a film for mature audiences who can deal with the messiness of love as it occurs in real life (as opposed to some neoconservative Christian fantasy world). In the following scene, Massimo's wife and male lover share their grief over Ernesto's death until they reach a point where things get decidedly awkward.

Beautifully written and directed, His Secret Life is available on Netflix. I highly recommend it as a poignant experience in death, mourning, confusion, understanding, and a betrayed widow's realization that she needs to get on with her life.

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One of the most endearing films shown during the Frameline 37 Film Festival came from Taiwan. If nothing else, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? makes audiences believe in romance and the power of true love to overcome societal prejudices.

Weichung (Richie Jen) and Feng (Mavis Fan) with their son
in a scene from Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Richie Jen stars as Weichung, a shy male optician in Taipei. Married for nine years to his best friend from childhood, he is the doting father of their six-year-old son, Awan (Chang Wei-ning). Weichung's wife, Feng (Mavis Fan), works as a clerk in a large corporation where her supervisor, Big Chen, seems overly fond of her. Although Big Chen is secretly in love with Feng, he can't act on his desires because he's her manager and she's an employee. Meanwhile, Feng's mother has been nagging the middle-aged couple to have a second child (at 38, Feng's biological clock is about to switch to alarm mode).

Weichung's sister, Mandy (Kimi Hsia), is a narcissistic drama queen being wooed by Sen-Sen (Mayday's guitarist, Stone), a fool who could well be the Taiwanese equivalent of a schlemiel. Bored with the groveling Sen-Sen, Mandy dumps him after having a panic attack in a department store and stays home watching television, eating noodles, and indulging in romantic fantasies wherein her favorite male soap opera star magically keeps appearing out of thin air to give her advice.

Poster art for Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

One day, a handsome young flight attendant from Hong Kong (Wong Ko Lok) sees Weichung through the window of his store and uses the ruse of needing new eyeglasses as a way to strike up a conversation. One thing leads to another and Weichung (who lived a gay lifestyle before marrying Feng) is smitten. A chance meeting with his old friend Stephen (Lawrence Ko) -- a wedding photographer whose business manager/wife is a lesbian -- puts Weichung back in contact with his old gang of gay friends.

Weichung's gay friends are a closely-knit group

As Weichung and Thomas fall in love, there is increasing stress in Feng's workplace because of possible layoffs. After a cutback in staff is announced, the employees are shocked when Big Chen resigns and recommends that Feng take his place. This, of course, leaves him free to confess his love for her. After learning that Weichung (who has shown no interest in having sex with his wife) is gay, Feng has to face some tough possibilities:

  • What happens if Weichung leaves her for Thomas?
  • What happens if Big Chen wants to marry her?
  • What happens if the change in their relationship leads to their son becoming estranged from his devoted father?

Thomas (Wong Ko Lok) kisses Weichung (Richie Jen)
in a scene from Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

While the film draws laughs as Weichung's band of gay friends try to give Sen-Sen a much-needed makeover, it is Feng who (quite surprisingly) saves Weichung from himself in a most touching and deeply loving gesture. As the film's American-Chinese director Arvin Chen notes:

"This movie is really about how struggling to find or maintain love in everyday life is something we all have to deal with. There's really no easy answer, but somehow we keep at it (whether as a closeted gay man, a repressed working mom, or a crazy bride-to-be)."

Chen's film benefits immensely from jazz composer Hsu Wen's musical score. Underlying the plot of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is the question of whether people who have repressed their own desires in order to appease societal standards are entitled to a second chance which allows them to fulfill their own goals in life.

This film will be particularly poignant to women who unknowingly married a gay man who wanted to have a family as well as those whose first marriages (for whatever reason) simply didn't work out. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape