Aesthetically pleasing and authentic, The Silent Teacher is a Taiwanese documentary and discussion of death and, its inseparable shadow, life. Revolving around the embalmed greyish body and death of Hsu Yu-e, the “silent teacher” whose corpse is donated to a medical school for dissection, the film captures the emotions and objective reality of her family and the anatomy class professor and students of Fu Jen Catholic University.
The film opens with Hsu’s daughter wondering about Hsu’s afterlife with her father Lin Hui-tsung. We then catch a glimpse of their inner discomforts, such as the daughter’s psychological trauma of being unable to find closure since her mother’s funeral can only be held after the anatomy class is finished with it.
Another part of the documentary explores the mental barriers of the professionals who participate in the maintenance and dissection of Hsu’s body. There is a specific focus on the anatomy professor who shamefully confesses that she could not bring herself to use her own parents’ dead bodies as lecture demonstrations, even though she encourages other to donate.
The documentary is not only about the familial pain and medical treatment of “the silent teacher”, but also the ethics of anatomical teaching and learning, as well as Chinese culture and its taboo of cutting up the deceased. Most essentially, The Silent Teacher explores life through death. It is a serious lesson that teaches the audience to perceive and live life with a more lucid eyes and a clear mind.
Although reality is softened by editing, cinematic techniques, and the slow and calming background music, the documentary remains fairly truthful and unafraid to show the rawness of the heavy subject matter. The audience is given room to absorb and contemplate on issues such as the relationship between the living and the dead, Chinese family relationships, and the morality of human dissection.
Without the body donation and death of her “ordinary” and “extraordinary” mother, Hsu’s daughter confessed to the camera, she wouldn’t have pondered on the reason of human existence - Why do we live? But having first-hand experience of death is not necessary, because watching this movie is good enough for a reawakening. We don’t know what comes after death, yet we can at the very least live purposefully. The Silent Teacher is therefore a must watch, especially for people who are too busy with their daily lives to think about the meaning of their lives.