Your Name Engraved Herein (Taiwan, 2020) [OAFF 2020]

The first LGBTQ+ film since the legalization of gay marriage in Taiwan, Your Name Engraved Herein aims to be emblematic of the gay experience by setting its story of characters accepting their homosexuality and coming out during the easing of cultural conservatism in the 1980s while simultaneously embracing the newfound openness of today’s Taiwanese society.

Liu Kuang-hui’s film starts in media res at the greatest point of crisis for two lovers at a Christian school. One, bloodied and bruised, recounts how the drama started which launches the film into its many extended flashbacks. Chang Jia-han, known as A-Han (Chen Hao-sen), is majoring in science and is the more conservative of the two. Pure-hearted, he prays to God for guidance and while he hangs out other boys as they try to charm the ladies, he doesn’t have their instinctive lust for the opposite sex. The other, Birdy (Tseng Ching-hua), is a bit of a wild card. Having named himself after Alan Parker’s 1984 Vietnam War movie, he is a James Dean-like rebel with a cause, which is defying unjust authority. There is a lot of that as the two are studying in a restrictive boarding school run with military precision by adults who crack down on any dissent or difference. The only support they get comes from blonde and bearded Canadian priest Oliver (Fabio Grangeon). As the two hang out, Birdy’s brash confidence and sense of justice draws out A-Han’s love as the innocent character begins to understand he likes boys rather than girls.

They meet at an auspicious time because it is 1987 and the end of the Martial Law Era has initiated the slow advance of liberalization in the country as evidenced by the boy’s school suddenly becoming co-ed. Still, this change is slow and conservative attitudes still reign, overlapping with the religious and cultural attitudes in the school so while the boys are aware of their burgeoning attraction to each other they know they cannot act on it openly. This gives the film its tension as there are numerous instances of homosexuality being punished by teachers and students with extreme prejudice.

Due to the illicit nature of their love and the teenage passions that abound, every moment together becomes torrid and painful, full of barely restrained erotic feelings, wet dreams and sensuous touching that define their hidden desires. As they labor through the academic year, the restrictive nature of society poisons these pure emotions to make the characters bilious with self-hatred and violence until misunderstandings seemingly sever ties.

The film turns out to be rather schematic in how it tells its story but nonetheless provides a richly atmospheric and realistic depiction of a stifling society that crushes homosexuality and wages war on individualism. There are various figures and cultural signifiers of the age, such as a Street Fighter arcade cabinet and songs by Tsai Lan-chin, but what tracks constantly in the narrative is the sense of an expanding consciousness of Taiwanese people. The fight for gay rights fits into this from references to the writing of Sanmao to a glimpse of the real-life LGBTQ activist Chi Chia-wei who gets arrested by the police in one scene. These references may be a little obscure for foreign audiences but are easy to understand as it is all channeled into the boys’ battle to establish their personalities and their love at a time when what they are is deemed unacceptable. 

The atmosphere is enhanced by the drama mostly taking place in the hothouse of a school. Moments of freedom experienced by the two as they head to theatres and get to know each other are potent and romantic as we see A-han slowly fall for Birdy. As the more confident, the more defiant and yet the more dishonest of the two, Birdy deals with A-han’s attraction by dating female student Ban Wu (Mimi Shao). This initiates a painful and humiliating journey for A-han that takes up the rest of the film as he comes to terms with coming out. It’s a process made more arduous due to Birdy’s seeming indifference. His inexplicable behavior has a reason which the audience is clued into with lingering shots of his face showing the mask slipping as he works to protect A-han from making a mistake and revealing his true sexual orientation.

Importantly, the film establishes their sexuality is normal and always prompts the audience to question just what is love by having different definitions of it, from A-han’s pure emotion to showing how hetero social norms and relationships can be toxic – parents who married out of convenience, desperation, social order, just to have kids. In contrast to those examples, the emotions of the boys come out as the purest.

Performed in a confident and highly physical manner by its leads, this beautifully shot film goes a long way to portray an intense romance that should appeal to a wide audience as the narrative wisely uses historical and cultural context to create empathy for its main characters.

Your Name Engraved Herein was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 14 and 15.