Director: Barney Cheng
Cast: Gua Ah Leh, Barney Chen, Michael Adam Hamilton, Love Fang, Tzi Ma, Yvette Mercedes
Runtime: 1 hr 42 mins
Rating: R21 (Homosexual Theme)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures & Lighthouse Pictures
Opening Day: 29 October 2015
Synopsis: Danny and his boyfriend Tate long to have a baby. When Danny's mother, Ma, finds out about his plans she is horrified by the idea to hire a surrogate that would carry her first awaited grandchild. Ma tries to stop Danny, however when she understands that he is determined, she wants to control every aspect of the process. The foursome (Danny, Tate, Ma and The surrogate) must travel thousands of miles to Bangkok for the embryo transfer. The emotionally exhausting journey inevitably evidence Ma unresolved issues about Danny being gay and the non-traditional family that they are starting.
Not since Lee Ang’s ‘The Wedding Banquet’ slightly more than two decades ago has there been such an honest examination of the struggles of a gay man in Chinese society; as its lead character Danny’s (Barney Cheng) mother says, there are three joys in a person’s life – to get married, to have a child, and to have grandchildren – none of which come easily or naturally to a gay person. Comparisons to Lee Ang’s seminal film isn’t at all coincidental – not only has its writer and director Cheng said that his debut film is meant to be a sequel in spirit, he has also deliberately cast veteran Taiwanese actress Gua Ah-leh from that earlier film here, playing yet again the mother who cannot quite come to terms with her son’s homosexuality.
In a sign of the times, Danny isn’t struggling to come out of the closet; right from the beginning, Cheng makes it clear that he has, and is living happily with his boyfriend Tate (Michael Adam Hamilton) in Los Angeles. Yet his mother, who lives in Taipei, still refuses to acknowledge that in front of friends and relatives, not least because she really, really wants to have a grandchild, so much so that she obsesses over her elder son’s choice of a girlfriend, disapproving of his current partner whom he wants to settle down with because she thinks the girl doesn’t come from an equivalent family background and isn’t smart enough. Danny’s conflict with his mother is not played out in itself but over the course of his decision to start a family with Tate, a journey which involves finding the right egg donor as well as a suitable surrogate to carry their baby.
That journey brings Mrs Lee (Gua Ah-leh) to Los Angeles, where she not only meets Tate for the first time but begins to get uncomfortably intrusive into their choice of donor and surrogate. Yet, in what differentiates Asian and Western culture, Danny’s inclination isn’t immediately to sideline his mother and go at it alone but rather to still reach out to her and attempt to find common ground despite their differences. What ensues is a cross-country voyage that takes them from Mumbai to Bangkok and finally back to Taipei, as Danny, Tate and Mrs Lee race to overcome legal and psychological odds to find a doctor able to perform the in-vitro fertilisation without running afoul of the law as well as a female ready, willing and prepared to carry their child for its first nine months.
Cheng has based his film on his own experience as a gay, and even though his story of reconciliation and acceptance does hit some predictable beats, there is no denying that it is earnest, genuine and for the most part, heartfelt. He doesn’t overplay the conflict between mother and son and concomitantly that between his character and Tate, nor for that matter does he try to draw sympathy for the plight of gays in similar situations; instead, he presents the inherent tensions with a clear and objective eye, such that his audience comes to understand the dilemmas from both points of view, the son who wishes that his mother love him for who he is and the mother whose conservative upbringing and worldview inhibits her from embracing her son as much as she really wants to.
Even more admirably, Cheng doesn’t use his film as a statement of empowerment; rather, if Danny’s journey is anything to go by, his message is that happiness as a goal is only possible if both sides work at it through love and mutual understanding – and while that certainly doesn’t make it one of the more provocative voices in the LGBT culture wars happening across many societies today, it does make for a refreshingly less confrontational and yet distinctly realist perspective. And while Cheng and Hamilton make for a convincing gay couple onscreen, it is Gua who steals the show every single time with her nuanced portrayal of a parent who gradually accepts her son and the modern family he is creating that is truly poignant.
As Cheng’s first film, ‘Baby Steps’ does suffer from some of the inexperience of its filmmaker, in particular in terms of transitions and continuity. Yet, one is more than inclined to overlook these flaws because there is no doubt whatsoever that Cheng’s heart is in the right place and that he has given a lot of it to make this film. It certainly lacks the polish of ‘The Wedding Banquet’, but the characters, their struggles and the larger societal issues at play here strike a deep and resonant chord – and like its title suggests, it is a small but confident step for a first-time filmmaker who is just finding his voice through film.
(It could certainly do with a little more polish and finesse, but Barney Cheng's cross-cultural comedy/ drama about a gay hoping to start a family with his partner and find acceptance from his mother is sincere, earnest, and heartfelt)
Review by Gabriel Chong