“DEAR EX”— A Contentious Issue and a Human Backdrop

 “Dear Ex”

A Contentious Issue and a Human Backdrop

Amos Lassen

In May 2017, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court voted to legalize same-sex marriage and thus paved way for other countries to do so. Photos of Taipei’s gay pride parade showed the world the joy that came with the decision. However, even with Taiwan’s reputation as one of the most progressive countries in Asia, conservative groups fight back against the decision. We sometimes forget how such debates affect real families and real people, many of them who are marginalized. “Dear Ex” takes this often contentious issue and frames it against a very human backdrop. Famed director Mag Hsu and new director Hsu Chih-yen have crafted a compelling story about a teenage boy, his widowed mother, and his late father’s gay lover.
This is a touching film that avoids histrionics or sentimentality by framing everything through the lens and perspective of a boy, Chengxi (Joseph Huang), whose life is thrown into chaos. After his father, Song Zhengyuan (Spark Chen) dies of cancer, Chengxi finds himself caught in the middle of a feud between his enraged, divorced mother, Liu Sanlian (Hsieh Ying-xuan), and his father’s free-spirited gay lover, Jay (Roy Chiu), who Zhengyuan named as his insurance beneficiary.
Even though “Dear Ex” most certainly touches upon sexual orientation and how it is considered within Taiwanese society, the issue the film is after is much more universal. Liu Sanlian thinks that Jay’s mother (Ai-lun Kao) does not know about her son’s homosexuality and we immediately recognize the kind of social taboo linked to sexual orientation. In general, the film often plays with the concepts of private and public when depicting homosexuality as a purely private matter limited to the confinements of Jay’s apartment. The idea of restrictions such as these are not limited to his character. Through the visual approach the narrative often uses, fragments of animation mimicking Song’s scrapbook drawings, the viewer is constantly aware of the presence of these metaphorical prison bars. Many of them have been designed by their environment, but some are the creations of the characters themselves. For example, while Liu may appear like a “nagging” annoyance at the beginning, the mixture of anger, disappointment and downright fear to once again be ignored (this time by her son) becomes a framework through which the character’s action can be understood. This is largely due to Hsieh Ying-xuan’s performance that ranging from hysterical to finely nuanced scenes expressing how much her character is afraid of being considered a failure in the eyes of society
Watching his mother hound Jay for this insurance payout, Chengxi expresses contempt for what he perceives as his mother’s greed. This leads him to move in with Jay, an eccentric theatre producer who is struggling to stage a final production of the play that brought him and Zhengyuan together Jay and Zhengyuan met many years ago and were in love, but Zhengyuan turned away from Jay in order to live a “normal” life, later marrying Liu Sanlian and having Chengxi. After being diagnosed with cancer, Zhengyan decided to live out his final days with Jay, who he called his husband. After his death, the lives of these three individuals come together in a way that is life changing for them all. The backstory of the film is incredibly painful and emotional, but “Dear Ex” avoids melodrama by subverting expectations of what such a film should be.
Chengxi, though clearly confused and grief-stricken, does not wallow in this anguish, but instead his irreverent voice-over and hand-drawn annotations on screen add many notes of levity to what could otherwise turn into a story that is ultra-serious. Of his mother’s histrionics, Chengxi says, “Not going to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting would be a great loss.” The standout moments  really show the pain that comes with any relationship. Many of them are flashbacks. Jay violently cuts his hair in an attempt to convince his dying partner to do the same; the two men, both beaten down, look in the mirror, allowing the viewer to identify even more strongly with the men looking back at us. In his cramped office at a local university, Zhengyuan tells his wife that he is moving out as she begs that she will change so that he will want to stay. When he tells her the real reason their relationship will never work out, she collapses to her knees. This enclosed space, combined with the beautiful cinematography, makes the viewer feel like a voyeur during this intimate moment. Going back to the present day, Jay’s relationship with his mother is examined, and the result is an unexpected moment that demonstrates the power of love to triumph over bias.
This is a powerful portrait of contemporary Taiwan in transition. It strips away the headlines surrounding the fight for LGBT rights and  examines the inner life of a family—brought together not by blood, but by love. On the surface, “Dear Ex” may be regarded as a melodrama and it certainly shares some ground with these in terms of writing and character development. However, during the course of the film we are won over thanks to the visual approach and the performance by Joseph Huang as the frustrated adolescent, constantly at odds with the outside world. Confronted with Jay’s story, his love and affection for his father, the tables are suddenly turned against his mother, but even that does not work, as her story is equally a series of disappointments and trying to accommodate a notion of “being normal”. The film moves  from coming-of-age drama to a story about weakness, love and grief, as well as the personal drama of letting go of the kind of life one promised himself, or which was promised to him.
On a technical level, “Dear Ex” embraces character-driven drama through its depiction of spaces. Each of them constitute a universe connected to memories of love, regret and laughter, highlighted in this case by the frequent use of flashbacks, often blurring the lines between present and past. At the same time, they reflect the contrast between the characters: the chaotic, extroverted nature of Jay and the controlled character of Liu Sanlian who likes to keep things nice and neat. “Dear Ex” is a drama about loss, growing up and people’s weaknesses. It is a story about many serious issues handled with the right balance of comedy and sincerity supported by the good cast and a playful use of animated sequences. It is a film that is not easily forgotten.

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