Derek Ho – Unspoken

Derek Ho writes about his newly released documentary.

Recently, I asked myself a question: How do I apologise for outing my brother when there are no memories of it? This difficult question required a complex answer. The result was the film, A Thousand Words Unspoken.

Thirty years ago, I outed my brother to our traditional Chinese parents in Singapore. My brother Jeremiah was twenty years old. I was thirteen and struggling with my own sexuality. It was, and still is to this day, illegal to be gay in Singapore due to the archaic penal code 377A the country inherited during its days as a British colony criminalising homosexuality.

I moved to Australia as an international student when I was twenty-one, carrying the dreams of one day becoming a film maker. I had also arrived during the heights of anti-Asian sentiments in the late 90s.

I literally became a minority overnight. As a gay Asian man who has struggled with discrimination from society at large and from within the gay community, due to my sexual orientation and race, it had led me to an experience that was deeply conflicted with self-acceptance. It took me a long time to find contentment and peace within.

While I have embraced my identity as a rainbow atheist in Australia, Jeremiah struggled with his life as a gay man in Singapore and spiralled out of control. It was during his darkest hours that he found hope in Christianity.

I often wondered about the downward spiral of my brother’s life as a gay man and his recent denouncement of his sexual identity, and how much of that has got to do with his traumatic coming out experience that was caused by me. I know deep down whatever happened in the past can never be reversed. Making A Thousand Words Unspoken was the first step towards letting go of the guilt and forgiving myself while working towards reconciliation and acceptance with my family, especially my brother.

My documentary is a portrait of love and trauma, where two brothers find themselves navigating the space between trust, faith and healing. I am telling this very personal story for healing and closure. I also hope those who have doubted their value and existence can find strength from my story.

A Thousand Words Unspoken was first broadcast on 19 July 2020 by ABC Compass. The film has also been selected to screen at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival and Shanghai Queer Film Festival.

A review of A Thousand Words Unspoken by Rajesh Krishnamuti

In Derek Ho’s A Thousand Words Unspoken, a dark hue colours the opening scenes of his film as he begins a mournful narration of why he has returned to the land of his birth. It is to ask for his brother’s forgiveness for something he (Derek Ho) did when they were little. By Ho’s own admission, it was something so devastating, it ripped the family apart. Ho contends that if time has always been described as a natural healer, it isn’t always true. This is a poignant truth and one hovers over his return. Ho’s arrival is also filmed against iconic images of Singapore’s present-day success. The sanitised and ordered images – chilling metaphors for erasure and transformation – anticipate the film’s unfolding interplay between the past and present.

Ho’s brother is named after the biblical prophet Jeremiah, a name he adopted after his conversion to Christianity. He is a good cook and volunteers at his local church where he teaches the concept of Christian forgiveness and love. Jeremiah’s beliefs are unequivocal, and he espouses Christianity’s tenets in mechanistic terms throughout the film. Ho, on the other hand, is an atheist homosexual male who has made Australia his home for the last twenty years. The initial reunion between the two brothers is met with an awkward embrace and is followed by Jeremiah proudly professing he is well by the grace of God. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that if Ho is to receive the forgiveness he desires, he must get past the mighty will of a religion that he disagrees with.

We then learn that when Ho was thirteen, he discovered a stack of gay magazines belonging to Jeremiah. The young Ho is curiously excited by the images of naked men and decides to tell their father about his discovery. Ho’s reasons for telling their father are never revealed and the travesty of his actions are only reflected in the line: I wished the bed would swallow him up. The film also does not say why the thirteen-year-old Ho chose to tell his father? The audience is left to wonder if it was the shame of discovering at an early age that he might be homosexual or if it was anger that the brother hadn’t shared the magazines with him. Or was it perhaps the wilful and childish antics of a precocious meddling teenager? Ho was after all just thirteen when it happened. It is, however, strongly implied that he was guilty of his actions. And so guilty is he that he has decided – after a span of 30 years – to confess his actions and ask for forgiveness. A significant period has elapsed since the fateful event. At this point in the film, I did wonder – why now? What has transpired in the time since the fateful event that has led to Ho’s decision to revisit an event from his childhood?

The film then enters a complex space where both brothers, seated on opposite sides of the table, debate the difficult question of homosexuality and biblical sin. In the scene, Ho pointedly asks a church member about the church’s stance on the issue only to have him aptly reply that this is a huge topic that can’t be easily explained. Admittedly, this is where the film begins to briefly lose its bearings. What about the stack of magazines? Where is Ho’s desire for his brother’s forgiveness at this point in the film? The personal and the political meet at this point with little efficacy. Is this a film about forgiveness or is it a film about doctrinal truths?

Ho’s attempts to initiate a conversation about the event are also foiled by Jeremiah’s repeated framing of their conversations within the biblical narrative of condemnation and redemption and this only fuels his resolve. He is concerned that his brother’s contentment is a construct of his religion rather than a genuine demonstration of his true self. Finding little success in arguing his way past religious dogma, Ho humanises his attempts in what it is unquestionably one of the film’s most powerful scenes:

Ho: So you happy being by yourself?

Jeremiah: It’s pointless to be in a relationship. There’s no point getting married. In fact, I’m not alone. I have God now. And I’m determined not to live for myself anymore. Not to live for my flesh. Not to live for instant gratification, and I just want to do the will of God and I just want to glorify him. Yeah. I just want to make his name known to the world. And I want everyone to know if he’s saved me from my sins. That he didn’t leave me in a lurch. He didn’t allow me to go berserk. He kept my sanity. And I can’t imagine if I were to go berserk, what would happen to our parents. So I know that God just didn’t save me, he actually saved our family [breaks down in tears].

In humanising Jeremiah’s journey, Ho enables his brother’s catharsis. In this the film’s most painful confessional moment, we get to witness the burden of Jeremiah’s struggles. And for a moment, we forget about Ho’s desires for forgiveness as they are supplanted by the weight of this revelation. Although he does not question his brother, Ho considers how a religion that teaches love belies so much pain. In another scene, the two brothers confront each other via their sister. In his defence, Ho sublimates religious dogma to a genuine respect for his brother’s freedom:

Ho: We may have differing viewpoints. I ask questions; that doesn’t mean I necessarily attack. I’m not against you being Christian. Not at all. In actual fact, I’m very delighted that you have something that gives you hope. Something for you to hold on to. There’s no way I want to take that away from you.

Ho’s project comes to a sudden halt when he receives word that all filming of Jeremiah’s involvements with the church are to cease at once. To further complicate matters, his brother decides to withdraw from filming, thereby strengthening Ho’s belief that the Church is influential in Jeremiah’s personal decisions. Ho’s ‘hidden agenda’ is exposed as Jeremiah accuses him or making a documentary criticising Christianity on the pretext of making a film about their family.

For an autobiographical film, the question of truth deserves some consideration; fiction and truth overlap in the space between dramatization and reality. The important question that this film asks, however, is whose truth are we (the viewers) willing to accept? Is it the truth about Ho’s genuine intentions in Singapore? Or are they Jeremiah’s Christian truths that he has passionately embraced? Ho’s film leaves these questions unanswered.

Towards the end of the film, Ho admits to having lost the opportunity to apologise to his brother, which was the initial pretext for the film. He reaches out to his brother one final time and the brothers have their final confrontation. Ho recalls the fateful incident and Jeremiah repeats his inability to remember. To move beyond their shared pasts, he reminds his brother that what’s past is in the past. He also asks Ho a most fitting question: so what’s the purpose of bringing this up? So you can finish your documentary? Ho is silent, and by this time in the film, it signifies a position that perhaps the complex truths about their lives are best left to the unspoken, to silence.

In a twist of events, Jeremiah attempts to proselytise in the hope that Ho might repent. The final scene is a painful exchange where the two brothers reluctantly affirm each other’s rights to his own existence and beliefs. Ho says he’s happy for his brother, but we know it comes from a point of pained resignation.

If Ho is after his brother’s forgiveness, he could take comfort in the fact that he may have received one, without even asking for it. But he must also accept that the forgiveness is dispensed by way of a religion that paradoxically denies him as a gay man. This refraction is something that Ho is unable to accept, which is why he chooses to reject the forgiveness that he had desired. His rejection is painfully captured in his polite request that Jeremiah lets go of his arms, thereby releasing him from that desire.

Is the forgiveness that Ho needed from his brother really a desire for self-forgiveness then? This remains a question that the powerful film raises about the difficult issue of homosexuality, religion and the notion of a true self. When the question of homosexuality becomes entwined in religion, it makes the idea of (Christian) forgiveness a difficult emotion to rationalise. Ho’s film contemplates a post-secularist space where religion and secular unite and divide through familial bonds, and it does so with suitable aplomb. That he manages to outline these complex issues in the span of 15 minutes is a remarkable achievement.

By the end of the film, one gets the feeling that it is an argument that Ho has lost. If so, does this mean that Jeremiah has won? Perhaps the real winner in this film is courage: the courage to confront one’s past; the courage to confront one’s feelings and desires; and the courage to live one’s truth. And this is where Ho must be given full credit. In putting his life on display, he renders it to public scrutiny, his actions judged.

Rajesh Krishnamuti is a full-time educator at a higher education institution in Western Australia. He loves watching films, reading books and writing a lot about them in his spare time. He will soon recommence his doctoral degree on the works of South African novelist J.M. Coetzee.