Review: Your Name Engraved Herein
Come for the pretty boys, stay for the clunky metaphors about martial law.
Welcome to Tongzhi Tuesday, a series where I’ll be reviewing queer Asian and AAPI content in whatever form that may come in, whether it be movies, TV, music, or the occasional manhua. Subjects and tone will range from comical to serious, depending on my mood. Yes, this is a veiled excuse to talk about the things I like. Want to suggest something for me to review? Leave me a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
tongzhi (同志): lit. “same aspiration,” meant to denote “comrade” but has been adopted by the Mandarin-speaking LGBTQ+ community to mean “gay” or “queer”
Your Name Engraved Herein comes on the heels of a recent spate of Taiwanese LGBTQ-themed films. I have seen a handful of these, including the similarly-lauded Dear Ex, and unfortunately, I have come away with one conclusion: that like its contemporaries, Your Name Engraved Herein is all face and no teeth. Gorgeous as it appears on the surface, it often fails to live up to its own lofty ideals and the long shadows cast by its country’s most celebrated directors.
Don’t get me wrong — there is quite a lot I like about Your Name Engraved Herein. Much like its Taiwanese New Wave predecessors, the movie explores the country’s youth struggling to navigate in the aftermath of Taiwan’s rule by martial law. Birdy (Tseng Ching-hua) and Chang Jia-han (Edward Chen) are two high school boys who become fast friends and develop an even faster mutual attraction towards one another, though they find that, despite the lifting of martial law, restrictive attitudes haven’t changed. Especially not towards queer folks; Chang Jia-han gets a front row seat to homophobia when his friends pummel another gay student at the school (and even force Jia-han to participate in the beating), and later, Jia-han and Birdy watch helplessly as the police arrest a gay activist on the streets of Taipei. It’s in this perilous environment that the two leads fall in love, exchanging loaded glances and affectionate gestures while holding back the immensity of their desires.
Here is where Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu’s directorial instincts excel — every scene between Jia-han and Birdy is redolent with chemistry, and you can’t help but to root for the boys even when they are at their most self-destructive. But all of this beautiful romantic tension is ruined by the clumsy script, which feels the need to over-explain every theme and metaphor presented by the movie. It’s a classic case of telling and not showing, as various scenes seem to nudge you directly in the shoulder and ask, “Isn’t it terrible that society used to treat gay people like this?” It’s all the worse when this happens in and around scenes that are delicately subtextual. Thirty minutes or so before credits roll comes Your Name Engraved Herein’s most memorable scene: after a period of no contact, Jia-han calls Birdy from a payphone, asks how he’s doing, and plays him a love song a university classmate had recorded on a cassette tape. It’s one of those heart-rending moments where what’s left unspoken is more powerful than anything the characters could be saying — but it’s then immediately undercut by a twenty-year timeskip in Canada that sucks the life out of everything preceding it. An extremely contrived subplot concerning the boys’ former school priest culminates in an extremely contrived conversation about, essentially, how gay relationships are just as valid as heterosexual relationships. Yeah, we know.
The film’s didactism seems to be a common problem plaguing Taiwan’s new queer cinema. This may just be growing pains as the country adjusts to more progressive social policies, but it’s surprising given how many films from both Taiwanese New Waves included or featured queer characters without the need for flashing neon signs about how gay people are just like you, the straights!
I can only think that part of this has to do with the increased international attention on Taiwan as the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. In fact, that the film would attract a large group of non-Taiwanese viewers seemed to be built into the fabric of it. The film was partly funded by Canada and saw its international premiere on Netflix two months after its domestic release. This seems to explain much of the catering to Western audiences, including the terrible last twenty minutes set in Quebec City, and what felt like to me a lot of repetitive, on-the-nose summaries of Taiwan’s history and culture. Liu himself said he’d hoped the film would reach Malaysia and Singapore, both Asian countries that still criminalize homosexuality, and while it’s a very noble intention, nobility does not always a good movie make.
The unearned potential of Your Name Engraved Herein is all the more disappointing to me as a lover of Taiwanese New Wave films, which were about as neorealist as dramas could get and drew their strength from nuances, implications, moments unexplained and unspoken. And I know it’s unfair to compare this movie to Happy Together, which stands titan in queer Chinese cinema, but the comparisons are naturally called for. After all, both movies spend much of their time bathed in the prismatic neon lighting of the 1980s, and both stories conclude with a symbolic trip to a waterfall on the other side of the world. Happy Together does so much of what I’d hoped Your Name Engraved Herein had, including the final act of yearning suffused with the loved one’s absence. It makes me wish that there was an editor in either the development or post-production phase of the latter film brave enough to cut out all of the scenes with too much moralizing dialogue, or the Quebec City jaunt entirely. (Trust me, you can turn the movie off after the payphone scene — the actors portraying Birdy and Jia-han’s older selves have an iota of the chemistry that their younger actors do.)
It’s a shame that there is so much I dislike about this movie, because there is also so much I love. The romance between the two leads is one that will linger with you long after you leave the Netflix homepage. With the astronomical success of the film in Taiwan, actors Edward Chen and Tseng Ching-hua have been catapulted to celebrity status, and for good reason. Their performances gird the rest of the film, providing a stable core even when the story around them falls apart. Their best moments, in my opinion, are when Birdy and A-han don’t speak at all. When they share their silent, mutual understanding, weighty with all the emotions they dare not express to the world. As any queer knows, it’s the pining gazes that speak loudest of all.
Your Name Engraved Herein is currently streaming on Netflix.