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Coronavirus, Cadavers, Catholicism: Not the Film Event you Expected

More than 100 PLNU students and faculty gathered in Crill Performance Hall the Tuesday evening before PLNU’s spring break for a special screening of two Taiwanese films. The event was organized by LJWL department chair, James Wicks, and included the short film, “A Gong / Grandpa,” and a feature-length documentary titled “The Silent Teacher.” 

Wicks had invited representatives from the Los Angeles Taiwan Academy to participate in the event by talking about Taiwanese culture and film, but they canceled their trip to PLNU last minute due to concerns about COVID-19. Instead, “The Silent Teacher” was preceded by a short speech from the art director for the San Diego Asian Film Festival, Brian Hu, and a personal video introduction from the film’s director, Maso Chen. 

The documentary follows the relatives of a deceased woman who donated her body to a Catholic university in Taiwan to be used as a cadaver in a human anatomy class. Maso Chen’s film documents the embalming process, religious ceremonies, dissection labs, cremation and burial.

Wicks said he chose to show this movie for two reasons. First, because it deals with the topics of relationships and the afterlife as they pertain to identity (an area of focus in his world cinema class), and second, because it is one of his personal favorites.

“In terms of identity, [“The Silent Teacher”] questions even where our identity [ends],” Wicks said. “Does our identity end at death? Is there this space between now and the afterlife? It just expands the conversation by giving new cultural reference points.

“I watched this film two and a half years ago,” Wicks said. “Since then, I must have seen at least 400 movies and yet it’s probably in my top five. Unintentionally, unconsciously I find myself thinking of a moment in that movie. It just keeps coming back. There’s a quality within this film that is educational, that’s expanding, that’s transnational.”

Hu said in his introductory speech that he had chosen “The Silent Teacher” as one of the feature films at the San Diego Asian Film Festival in 2017, and it had a huge impact on audience members. 

“[The Silent teacher] was crossing the lines between different political parties, between older and younger. It takes a rather morbid subject — the dead bodies that students rely on so they can learn medicine — and turns it into the most giving and thoughtful and almost spiritual experience of connection, of education, of gratitude. I think that’s what shook everybody.”

Brennan Ernst, sophomore literature major, heard about the LJWL film event through Wicks’ world cinema class. Ernst said that he appreciated the documentary’s message about the sanctity of life and thought the Eastern idea of death was intriguing.

“That was something different that I’m not usually used to — the idea of a cadaver being alive until they’re cremated,” Ernst said. 

Ernst said he would recommend “The Silent Teacher,” but not without a “trigger warning, because you’re going to cry and you are going to have dreams the next night about dead relatives.” He speaks from personal experience.

Sabrina Deulofeu, sophomore psychology major, attended the LJWL film event in 2019 and decided to come again this year because of how impactful her first experience was. Deulofeu said she felt more cultured after watching “The Silent Teacher”.

“Not only do they have cadavers in Taiwan, they have them here as well, and thinking about the people who have to deal with that made me so shocked,” Deulofeu said. “I appreciated the amount of respect that [the characters] gave to the dead bodies, and I really appreciate how the film took that perspective of being grateful.

“I always felt so distant from it when, in reality, this was a person with a life who has family,” Deulofeu said. “I appreciated that it covered all of those societal aspects rather than just saying this is a teaching experience.” 

Documentaries — and films in general — are a teaching experience in their own right. Hu emphasized this in his introductory speech for “The Silent Teacher.”

“It’s good to go to Taiwan and to be able to visit, but films allow us to travel especially when travel is not possible, or not advisable,” Hu said, hinting at the complications of international travel caused by the recent coronavirus outbreak. “This is a way in which we can step in other people’s shoes.”

Written By: Lauren O’Brien