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SXSW 2020

SXSW Review: “No Crying at the Dinner Table” is a glimpse into the things left unsaid

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“No Crying at the Dinner Table” short film poster.

Watching Carol Nguyen’s short film “No Crying at the Dinner Table” as a child of Asian immigrants is an uncomfortable, queasy experience–if only because it touches upon a familiar sense of stoicism that haunts many Asian families. In my own, and in many others, openly talking about feelings usually never happens unless it comes in the form of bursts of anger or tragedy–and rarely anything in between. Mental health in Asian families is just not, if ever, addressed. Call it an unspoken agreement or cultural phenomena, but feelings get brushed aside in favor of the appearance of well-being. So when Canadian filmmaker Carol Nguyen sat down and asked her parents and her sister personal questions at the dinner table, I bristled. What was she doing? Didn’t she know that that’s not just something that you casually brought up?

From offscreen, Nguyen asks her family questions about moments in their lives that have stuck with them, one at a time. In that dark kitchen spotlit by a barebone light fixture, her family members recall their stories in Vietnamese and in English. Then, when they’re all done relaying their stories, she cleverly brings them all back together to the dinner table and allows them to listen to their stories together, as a family. While the concept behind “No Crying at the Dinner Table” is simple, there’s something that feels dangerously taboo about what Nguyen is doing–as if she’s breaking a sacred, cultural agreement. Unsurprisingly, feelings are lay bare. The dinner table, the place that pop-culture has deemed for idle chatter, is forced to become an arena for serious discussion.

Still from “No Crying at the Dinner Table.”

Direct, raw, and gorgeously shot, Nguyen’s documentary is less a film about her family and more a cultural statement about the burdens that many families silently endure. When Nguyen asks her father about such a moment, he goes into a story about his uncle almost immediately, as if he’d been waiting to confide in someone for ages. He later adds that no one had asked him such a thing before. But if they had, he adds, he wouldn’t have hesitated to share it. 

“No Crying at the Dinner Table,” then, is an important glimpse into the stories left unspoken; the feelings that we hold inside of us and battle with on a daily basis. Even within a tightly knit family like Nguyen’s own (this documentary would not have happened in a family like mine, for instance), there can still be feelings that are just waiting to be burst open with the simple asking of a question. But are you brave enough to go there?

Artist pages: IMDb, Director website

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Li-Wei Chu

Music and film lover from California.

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