In May 2017, Taiwan’s Constitutional Court voted to legalize same-sex marriage, paving the way for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to do so. Images from Taipei’s gay pride parade showed the world the jubilation that came with such a decision. However, despite Taiwan’s reputation as one of the most progressive countries in Asia, this ruling could be in jeopardy as conservative groups fight back against it. Amidst such political rhetoric, it can be easy to forget how such debates affect real families and real people, many of them marginalized. Dear Ex takes this often contentious issue and frames it against a very human backdrop. Working together for the first time, renowned director Mag Hsu and new director Hsu Chih-yen craft a compelling story about a teenage boy, his widowed mother, and his late father’s gay lover.
Dear Ex 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.
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 intersect in a way that is life changing for all involved. 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.
The striking cinematography is a standout feature of the film, which uses bright colors and creative framing to draw the viewer’s eye to different aspects of the frame. 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.”
There are standout moments that really crystallize 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, an intruder on this most intimate of moments—heightening the tension. Back in 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. Moments like this ground the film, which lingers on these instances of intimate conflict and thought-provoking reflection.
Despite the film’s slow pace, there are some missed opportunities. While Chengxi’s drawings (along with sessions with a therapist) provide a much-needed insight into his behavior, we only see him working on math homework, not drawing. What activities did he like to do with his father? Knowing more about his relationship with his father would have lent even more emotional weight to his story. While not everything has to be explained, the narrative arc seems to rush towards a resolution instead of chronicling all of the ups and downs as each major character navigates how they feel about one another.
Still, the result is a powerful portrait of contemporary Taiwan in transition. Dear Ex strips away the headlines surrounding the fight for LGBT rights and instead examines the inner life of a family—brought together not by blood, but by love.
Dear Ex is showing on November 8 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.