[Film Review] Dear Ex (2018)

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English Title: Dear Ex
Original Title: Shei xian ai shang ta de 谁先爱上他的
Year: 2018
Country: Taiwan
Language: Mandarin
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Directors: Mag Hsu 徐誉庭, Hsu Chih-Yen 许智彦
Writers: Mag Hsu 徐誉庭, Lu Shih-Yuan 吕蒔媛
Music: Lee Ying-Hung 李英宏
Cinematography: Lin Chih-Peng 林志朋
Editor: Lei Chen-Ching 雷震卿
Roy Chiu 邱泽
Hsieh Ying-Xuan 谢盈萱
Spark Chen 陈如山
Joseph Huang 黄圣球
Wan Fang 万芳
Kao Ai-Lun 高爱伦
Yang Li-Yin 杨丽音
Danny Liang 梁正群
Clover Kao 高隽雅
Ahn Zhe 安哲
Rating: 7.8/10

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Taiwanese senior teleplay writer Mag Hsu’s feature film debut, co-directed with Hsu Chih-Yen, an indigenous winner in the 55th Golden Horse Awards (winning 3 awards: BEST LEADING ACTRESS, BEST EDITING and BEST ORIGINAL SONG out of 8 nominations), DEAR EX uncharacteristically employs a comical tone to grapple with the harsh aftermath of bereavement, a closeted gay man Song Zhengyuan (Chen, lead vocalist of the local rock band Quarterback) dies of cancer, but to his ex-wife Liu Sanlian’s (Hsieh) astonishment, instead of leaving his insurance payout to their teenage son Chengxi (Huang), the beneficiary turns out to be Song’s male lover Ah Jie (Chiu), a nasty fight over pecuniary compensation apparently bubbles on the horizon, but DEAR EX has a much larger heart in its nexus.

A cross-section of the mostly overlooked group of “Tongqi” viz. wives of gay men, DEAR EX is not the first to pit a long-suffering wife against her husband’s same-sex lover, for instance, Ferzan Ozpetek’s HIS SECRET LIFE (2001) peeks with a more romanticized, curiosity-ridden temptation, but here, their interaction starts with a purely pragmatic need. While Sanlian brandishes her self-purported higher moral ground and tees off on Ah Jie as a shameless home wrecker, her holier-than-thou bravado is unexpectedly undermined by the betrayal of Chengxi, who is fed up with her everyday whinging and helicopter parenting, leaves her and stays with Ah Jie, also driven by a curiosity to know him better.

Togged out like a street punk, Ah Jie, in fact, is a practitioner of the fringe theater who are preparing the premiere of his latest play, which is due exactly on evening of 100th day after Song’s decease. Tactically weaving through the ongoing narrative with flashbacks that signpost every important turn and stop of the tripartite entanglement, DEAR EX holds fast in its affirmative pro-LGBTQ message even it sacrifices a modicum of complexity and authenticity by adorning Ah Jie with a holy nimbus, underneath his deceptive, rough-hewn veneer of a tearaway, he is the unadulterated good gay guy that is equipped with all the merits one would expect, taking it all on himself to tend his cancer-afflicted lover who has left him to start a heteronormative family. Roy Chiu, the former heartthrob primarily resides on the small screen, leaves audience rapt and mind-blowing in his unforeseen transfiguration roundly ticks off every emotional register needed to perpetuate Ah Jie’s larger-than-life personae.

Comparably, Hsieh Ying-Xuan spunkily amplifies Sanlian’s time-honored “empty vessel makes the most noise” desperation to leaven the heavy drama with prized comic relief but also holds on her own to resist being fully ridiculed, her earnest quest to the unfair fate is genuinely soul-shattering and soul-searching, poignantly shedding light on the import of legalizing the same-sex marriage (a tremendous achievement accomplished earlier this year in Taiwan!), there will be less tragedies for both sexes.

Riding on its infectious tropical anthem “Bali Song”, and aptly superimposing kawaii cartoon graffitis onto the frames to chime in with Chengxi’s own flighty train of thought, DEAR EX is an endearing portrayal of Taiwan’s social advancements in the LGBTQ front through a microscopic scenario, its positiveness never feels forced or indoctrinated, a compulsive jewel wears its heart of humanistic compassion and salutary intention on its sleeve.

referential entries: Yang Ya-che’s GIRLFRIEND BOYFRIEND (2012, 6.3/10); Ferzan Ozpetek’s HIS SECRET LIFE (2001, 7.6/10); Lou Ye’s SPRING FEVER (2009, 7.6/10).

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