My Missing Valentine (Taiwan, 2020) [SDAFF Spring Showcase 2021]

As with his previous two features that found success commercially, Zone Pro Site (2013) and The Village of No Return (2017), Taiwanese writer-director Chen Yu-hsun latest, My Missing Valentine, has a female protagonist in her early thirties navigating a specifically fateful decisive time in her life. Staying within his comfort zone of overt comedy, Chen uses liberal doses of the fantastical and ventures brazenly into sci-fi territory, manipulating time to render a quest to find her ‘true love’ as a quaint romantic story. It isn’t smooth sailing.

Since childhood, Yang Hsiao-chi (Patty Pei-Yu Lee) has felt time moving slightly sooner than everyone around her. Or perhaps she simply moves faster than everyone else. It isn’t quite clear. Yet Chen, in a welcoming characterisation, makes Hsiao-chi an unapologetic, confident woman who is sassy and in control of her life. Her generally quicker demeanour has long since rendered her out of step with her friends and her potential boyfriends are unable to keep up.

The first moment of stillness Hsiao-chi experiences is when listening to a radio talk show. It triggers a life-changing childhood memory of paternal abandonment. Perhaps her quickness refuses her to allow her to experience buried troubling emotions and feelings. Rushing through life so quickly that it in a way makes sense, Hsiao-chi wakes up one day thinking she has missed Valentine’s Day. She complains to a police officer that a day of promises made with wayward dance instructor Wenson Liu (Duncan Chow) has simply disappeared.

Hsiao-chi’s narrative arc raises questions about the pace of passage of time, that possibly it becomes subjective, that memories of traumatic childhood experiences amplify the same. This could be true for Wu Kui-tai (Liu Kuan-Ting) as well. My Missing Valentine is split into two sections and around the mid mark, Chen pivots the story to a second perspective, that of Kui-tai, who has been dutifully coming to post a letter each day at the post office where Hsiao-chi works. Time for Wu has always moved slightly slower than for his peers. Perpetually present with his roll camera, he clicks moments from his life that he treasures and that includes Hsiao-chi.

Revealing how Kui-tai and Hsiao-chi’s worlds collided and when, My Missing Valentine brims with the potential of becoming a story of how past ordeals and their memories affect and intensify one’s personal comprehension of physical time. That they in a way slow down or hasten its passage. Unfortunately, Chen muddles through this, opting for fantastical and quirky romance that clearly has an element of creepiness all over. Kui-tai’s ‘calculation of time’ earns him an additional day that he spends with Hsiao-chi. Rather than fulfilling Chen’s intention of romantic idiosyncratic catharsis, the elaborate episode screams questions regarding Hsiao-chi’s consent throughout.

A narrative that creates an imaginary sci-fi world ought to credibly create its own laws of physics that are consistent, thereby making complete sense within that world. The viewer can then enthusiastically go along for the ride. Unfortunately, Chen’s inability to render his time manipulating world consistent raises doubts about the said missing Valentine’s Day, even as he pushes Hsiao-chi and Kui-tai toward an easy resolution.

Episodes of fantasy, the gecko-man dream specifically, contrarily offer some sharpness as they pull into focus how thingamajigs of one’s past can unlock and bring buried, unprocessed sufferings to the fore. But these flights of fantasy remain simply as asides for eliciting laughs. Easy on the eyes cinematography and soft melodramatic pop music attempt to take the story smoothly to its finale, but instead becoming an obvious distraction.

My Missing Valentine was shown as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase 2021.