Film Review: The Taste of Secrets (2019)

Le goût du secret (2019)

Stop filming and stop asking questions, French-Cambodian director Guillaume Suon’s mother tells him at one point in the documentary. “What is it that you’re looking for?” There is nothing but grief, and everything is behind her.

Suon’s mother is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide. She is the center of the film, but unlike most subjects, is not always willing to tell her stories. In an interview, Suon spoke about “an urge to find out whatever she was concealing from us”. The Taste of Secrets is Suon’s fifth project on the Cambodian genocide, and he has described it as a coming-of-age journey. 

Faced with his mother’s reticence, Suon regards photographer and personal friend Antoine Agoudjian, the other pivot of the film. Antoine is a descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide. In pursuit of a shared, inherited legacy of horror, Suon and his brother follow Antoine to a photo exhibition in Turkey, to mass graves in Iraq, and to his mother’s house.

With Antoine, we are roving, discovering things. But Suon’s mother is pictured most often in the constancy of their home. The two characters do not meet, and their only link is Suon. Antoine is Suon’s companion, and his presence drives Suon’s pursuit.

Two genocides lurk behind the scene: the Armenian genocide from 1914 to 1923, and the Cambodian one from 1975 to 1979. What happened? How? Are the genocides comparable? These questions are of little relevance to The Taste of Secrets. The documentary does not linger on numbers or facts. It is neither didactic nor polemic. Instead, the voices of Suon’s mother and Antoine take centre-stage. What they do not remember, or refuse to talk about are just as important as what they remember.   

Suon is a constant listener rather than a voyeur or presenter. As the film progresses, Suon’s camera grows increasingly more gentle. His mother looks back at him, rather than at the camera, and warm familial moments are captured. In a market in Battambang, Suon’s mother identifies a noodle stall. “We eat here?” She says. And to Suon, “what are you having?” The moment is simple and memorable.

Suon framed the film as a journey – his own. His mother is different in Cambodia, at the end of the film, from how she was in France. In Cambodia, she remembers more. Yet, for her, the past is unchanged, and the present is as it is. For Suon, he comes to know where to look, and the presence of the ghosts from his mother’s past grow more familiar at the end of his exploration.

Reviewed by Teenli Tan
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