Review: The Teacher – Iris Prize Film Festival ★★★★

Ming-Lang Chen directs romantic Taiwanese drama The Teacher, set against the backdrop of the fight for marriage equality in Taiwan. Starring Oscar Chiu as Kevin, the titular teacher, the feature is an intriguing glimpse into the discrimination surrounding those within the queer community in Asia and the outdated attitudes towards HIV in Taiwan.

Kevin is a twenty-six year old civics teacher at a Taiwanese high school, who is scolded for his support of marriage equality by the school’s director, scared it will damage the organisation’s reputation. The young teacher begins a relationship with the older Gao (Chin-Hao Chang), yet only adds to Kevin’s tempestuous life with Gao’s wife (enjoying a marriage of convenience) and his diagnosis as HIV positive complicating matters.

The Teacher opens naturalistically portraying cruising in Taiwan, with Kevin the subject of many queer glances at a local sauna. Ming-Lang Chen’s direction is sensual and erotic, capturing the male form in all its glory and the darkened sexual appeal of Kevin’s lifestyle. It’s clear that Kevin is accepting of his sexuality – openly teaching about gay issues at work, protesting for marriage equality, and enjoying a healthy sex life. Yet, The Teacher examines the struggles of those around Kevin to accept this – with one of the film’s earlier scenes seeing Director Lin of the school mildly berating Kevin for his extra-curricular petitioning.

As Kevin begins to grasp some stability in his life through a new relationship with older man Gao, this is temporary, with the discovery of Gao’s wife and HIV positive status. Sending Kevin into a spiral of worry – he soon begins to fear his own diagnosis, whilst attempting to clean the slate with Gao’s somewhat unapproachable wife. Ming-Lang Chen does an impressive job at capturing the sense of impending dread faced by Kevin post-test where every phone call and potential symptoms triggers waves of anxiety.

Yet the meat of The Teacher’s narrative comes when news of Kevin’s potential diagnosis is overheard at the school, with the project depicting the inhumane way in which Kevin is treated by colleagues, ashamed on his behalf and fearing for their school’s reputation. A scene with his colleagues discussing what action to take as Kevin sits shell-shocked is particularly powerful. The Teacher becomes a bold showcase for the essential need for change in attitudes regarding homosexuality and HIV in conservative nations – with Kevin putting a strikingly human, natural face on this.

Oscar Chiu’s performance is one of sheer realistic beauty, delivering something compelling human and utterly watchable. We follow his journey as he navigates the world of casual sex, the buzz of a new relationship, to the challenges of building up an unorthodox dynamic with Gao’s wife and the contemplation of life HIV positive. With much complex emotional ground to cover, Chiu remains engaging and pitches his performance at a natural and realistic level, fully investing the viewer. Director of photography, Yi-Wei Feng’s natural and digital approach only heightens the impressive realism which fills The Teacher.