“I hate how she’s so pitiful,” Cheng-xi (Joseph Huang) confesses to his therapist when discussing his mother. “I hate that she loves money so much.”
His therapist interrupts gently. “Are you sure it’s hate? Hating something and having no power over something are two different things.”
The therapist is right: The boundary between hatred and fear has never been so blurred as in Dear Ex, a Taiwanese film recently released on Netflix. As is the case for most teenage boys, this is only the beginning in Cheng-xi’s long litany of complaints about his mother. Yet unlike most kids his age, Cheng-xi finds himself embroiled in an intense familial feud. After his father Zhengyuan (Spark Chen) dies of cancer, it is revealed that the beneficiary of the will is not Cheng-xi, but Jay (Roy Chu), his father’s gay lover. Cheng-xi’s mother Liu Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hseih), desperately tries to reclaim her late husband’s money, in order to afford her son’s tuition and the family’s cost of living — a process that alternately entails coercion and attempted blackmail. Yet Cheng-xi, tired of his mother’s erraticism, opts to live with Jay instead, and soon Sanlian senses another kind of loss: As her child comes of age, he drifts further from her control and into the terrible, unmonitored world of adulthood. Meanwhile, Jay and Cheng-xi become surprisingly close in their cohabitation, and Cheng-xi’s loyalties grow unclear: “He’s the bad guy, right?” he wonders to himself.
Like Sanlian, directors Chih-Yen Hsu and Mag Hsu steer Dear Ex dangerously close to melodrama. Yet at crucial moments, they tamp down the film’s excess drama quotient with strategic cinematographic choices. Temporal jumps richly fill in the context of Cheng-xi’s fraught family history, flashing back to the beginnings of his father’s affair with Jay, his mother’s confused rage, and his father’s tragic decline in health. These namely take the form of overexposed vignettes from the past or smoothly edited, continuous takes that play jump rope with timelines and narrative chronology. (A seamless sequence of Jay playing guitar in the first 30 minutes comes immediately to mind.) Occasionally, this lends itself to some narrative confusion. Despite a somewhat clarifying scene at the film’s conclusion, it remains slightly puzzling that Zhengyuan chose Jay as his main beneficiary, excluding Cheng-xi entirely.
Besides integrating flashback, Dear Ex makes use of other technical bells and whistles, too. Visually lush color palettes paint a vividly imagined world: a kitchen, bathed in emerald light; vibrant scarlet wallpaper; the angry red tinge of a drunken bender. Animated hand-drawn doodles appear, superimposed over the real world at Cheng-xi’s moments of flux and crisis. These doodles tend to overstate and over-stylize already-obvious thematic currents — miscommunication between mother and son, resentment of authority, simple symbolism — though they become less infantile and more subversive in later scenes. In his imagination, Cheng-xi censors the sight of Zhengyuan embracing Jay in dense, black scribbles — an attempt at erasure of the life his father chose over his son, even in his final days. Here, doodling delves into the interior consciousness of a character too closed-off to access otherwise.
This is the sort of narrative feat for which Chih-Yen and Mag need neither bells, nor whistles. Indeed, the directors display a unique knack for rendering human subjectivity with the most basic tools in the toolbox: As the story belongs less and less to Cheng-xi, the visual graffiti of his world gradually falls away. So too do the notes of melodrama, as screenwriters Mag Hsu and Shih-yuan Lu ease Jay and Sanlian from their respective stereotypes — callous rascal and hysterical, overbearing housewife, respectively — and flesh them into a fuller, more human depth of experience.
Dear Ex is, after all, less a coming of age story and more the tale of two ill-fated loves, treated with immense pathos. It’s a risky decision, too, to depict love stories of different sexualities with such equal sympathy. Admittedly Taiwan, with provisional same-sex marriage legislation in place and the second-largest pride parade in Asia, represents a comparatively liberal beacon in East Asia. Yet traditional attitudes of patriarchy and the domestic union still abound, as evidenced by Dear Ex: Jay faces casual usage of gay slurs and misgendering, especially in at the height of Sanlian’s retaliatory rage. “You shameless mistress,” Sanlian says, accusatory. “I’m still a guy,” Jay counters. “At least call me a male lover.” Yet as Chih-Yen and Mag tease out the origin stories of their romance, neither story affords more sympathy than the other. As Jay and Sanlian’s relationship morphs from competitive jealousy to outright animosity, it eventually evolves poignantly into something much more profound: A strange, mutual sympathy for the grief of losing the same man, in ways both very different and very similar.