Film

This Documentary Captures a Raw Conversation Deciding the Death of a Family Member

In “The Choice” viewers witness our collective discomfort with death.
KE
translated by Koh Ewe
SG
The Choice Chinese documentary directed by Gu Xue features a family conversation about death.
Documentary The Choice features an hour-long family conversation about a dying loved one. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection 

After learning from the doctor that his mother was in critical condition at the hospital, college student Fu Shiheng gathered his family members in a hurry. The point of the family meeting was to discuss whether his mother should remain in intensive care or be discharged and go home. According to doctors, remaining in the hospital meant that she may—in the best case scenario—remain in an indefinite coma. Meanwhile, going home almost certainly spelled death. Huddled around the living room, family members—including the woman’s sisters, nieces, and nephews—weighed their options.

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The Choice, a 65-minute documentary by director Gu Xue, shows the conversation of this Chinese family as they discuss how to treat a dying loved one. Viewers are transported straight to the living room to listen in like a fly on the wall. Without any voiceover narration or introduction to the subjects, the audience is expected to infer the backstory from the documented conversation alone.

The film begins with family members settling into their seats in the living room and ends with them standing up to leave at the end of the discussion. During the hour-long conversation, we catch a glimpse of Chinese familial dynamics and a cultural discomfort with discussing death. 

“Speak in order of Second aunt, Third, and Fourth, and then our turn,” instructed a man who laid the ground rules for the family meeting. In hierarchical Chinese families, one’s authority is determined by their generation and age. While younger family members are expected to be spectators who can choose to speak if they want to, they were the ones who ended up speaking the most in the discussion.

The camera pans slowly back and forth as the family members take turns to share their opinions. But the discussion immediately goes all over the place and nowhere at once—recounting consultations with doctors, obsessing over the use of a ventilator on the patient, and fussing about the financial burden of her hospital stay. 

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It proved to be a frustrating experience for everyone involved, especially for Fu, who had called for the family meeting. At one point, when asked about his opinion on his mother’s condition, he sits in defiant silence before making pointed remarks to a loud relative who dominated the discussion.

The Choice Chinese documentary features a family conversation about death.

Fu Shiheng, a college student who called for a family meeting to discuss the fate of his dying mother. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

Death is a big taboo in Chinese culture. It’s usually avoided in daily conversation, hidden from those outside the family, and even more so a rolling camera. What the film captured was a raw discussion that sheds light on a characteristically Chinese interaction about death.

The Choice Chinese documentary features a family conversation about death.

Family members huddle around the living room to discuss the fate of a critically ill relative. Photo: Courtesy of Real Image Media Collection

In the end, there’s no conclusion to be drawn from the heated but futile conversation, except that it seems to be a way for these despondent family members to cope with an imminent death in the family.

“Your mom’s fate, nobody dares to decide it. Since no one dares to decide it, it depends on herself,” Fu’s cousin said to him. But the truth is, as her aunt remained unconscious in the hospital, going on and off life support with little hope of recovery, they were the ones making that choice for her. 

A week after the family meeting, Fu’s mother passed away in the hospital. 

“The Choice” was the winner of the Emerging International Filmmaker Award at the 2020 Open City Documentary Festival in London.

In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.

Gu Xue, the director of the film, contributed in reporting.