Release Date: June 26th, 2020
Duration: 118 mins.
Director: Liu Kuang-hui
Writer: Chu Yu-ning (Script), Keralino Sandrovich (Original Novel)
Starring: Tseng Chin-hua, Chen Hao-sen, Wang Shih-sian, Leon Dai, Fabio Grangeon, Edward Chen, Mimi Shao,
The first LGBTQ+ film since the legalisation of gay marriage in Taiwan, Your Name Engraved Herein makes itself emblematic of the gay experience by tacking its story of characters accepting their homosexuality and coming out to the easing of cultural conservatism in the 1980s and the embrace of a new openness in Taiwanese society experienced now.
The film starts in media res at the greatest point of crisis for two lovers as one, bloodied and bruised, recounts how the drama started which launches the film into its many extended flashbacks.
Two teens in a Christian school catch each other’s attention as they go through exercises in a pool, at band practice and in the dorms. One, 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 with lads gadding about after ladies, he doesn’t have their instinctive lust for girls. The other boy, Birdy (Tseng Ching-Hua), is a bit of a wild card. Having named himself after the American Vietnam War movie, he is a James Dean-like rebel with a cause which is defying unjust authority and 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 a blonde and bearded Canadian priest named 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 for something like that because it is 1987 and the end of the Martial Law Era has initiated the slow advance of liberalisation in the country as evidenced by the boy’s school suddenly becoming co-ed but 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 forms a tension of the film 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, their every moment together becomes torrid and painful, full of barely restrained erotic feelings, wet dreams and sensuous touching that define their hidden desires, the limits they can go to and the strength of their emotions. As they labour through the academic year, the restrictive nature of society poisons these pure emotions to make the characters billious 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 very atmospheric as it gives a realistic and rich 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 (this world) but what tracks constantly in the narrative is the sense of an expanding consciousness of Taiwanese people and 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. There’s references are a little obscure for foreign audiences but are easy to understand as it is all channelled into the boy’s battle to establish their personalities and their love at a time when what they are is unacceptable.
The atmosphere is helped by the fact that the action mostly takes place in the hothouse of a school to ratchet up intensity. The 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, the more confident, the more defiant and yet the more dishonest of the two as he deals with A-han’s attraction by dating Ban Wu (Mimi Shao) a female student which causes disruption to the narrative, initiating a painful and humiliating journey for A-han that makes up the rest of the film as he comes to terms with coming out. This process is made more arduous due to Birdy’s seeming indifference. His inexplicable behaviour has a reason which the audience is clued into with lingering shots on his face to show 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 gets 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.
Beautifully shot and with confident and highly physical acting from the leads, the film goes a long way to portray an intense romance that should be easy to understand and appeal to a wide audience especially as the narrative wisely uses historical and cultural context to humanise the main characters.