Who loved him first?
In a situation where no one is completely free from culpability, who do we blame? Directed by Mag Hsu, the Taiwanese film Dear Ex markets itself as a comedy-drama. However, it’s ironic, sometimes cruel humour is an unconvincing mask over a bitter, solution-less situation in which almost everyone involved can be neither absolved nor condemned. The film’s premise is a bold stroke that tips precariously on the edge of melodrama, where a man dead from liver cancer leaves his life insurance to his male lover rather than his divorced wife and child. With a cast that at first resembles caricatures, the petty spats between wife and lover gradually unfold to reveal the simmering grief and anger at the decisions of the deceased, the confusion and loss of those still living, and finally, a grand catharsis.
The Complex Characters
Narrated through the eyes of Song Chengxi, the son of the deceased and a moody preteen, his ignorance guides the audience through the tangle of relationships while also saving the film from falling too far into melodrama. Distant and resentful of his mother, curious and equally resentful of his father’s lover, he acts as the lynchpin drawing the film together, while also the character furthest from the knot of societal obligations and emotions tying the three adults to each other. As such, he acts as very much a bystander, with an underwhelming and ultimately forgettable performance.
The film performs, at times unsuccessfully, a tightrope balancing act between generating equal sympathy for the scorned wife and the secret lover. It is hard to feel for either at the start, with Liu Sanlian, the scorned wife turning to helicopter parenting and knee-jerk homophobia; Jay, the male lover, unpredictable and flighty, callous and reacting at times with bursts of almost violence. Nonetheless, both actress Hsieh Ying-Hsuan and actor Roy Chiu do a remarkable job to keep from slipping too far into the stereotypes that could have easily dominated them.
Wife and the Other Man
The actual sequence of events is simple to follow: a man falls in love with another man, leaves the man under social pressure to marry and have children, then on finding out he’s been diagnosed with liver cancer, divorces his wife to return to his lover. But the dry recount does no justice to the tricky blame game that unfolds. Why should the wife be abandoned – in fact, why should she even have been married under such false pretences? Why should the lover be cast aside under the social pressure of marriage?
Both of these questions seem to point their heads at the other woman (in this case, man), but the true culprit lies already buried, silent, unable to be blamed or absolved. And behind him, still, there lies the larger tapestry of homophobia, social pressure, concepts so significant that ‘blame’ seems inadequate to encompass them. The answer, then, is to give up on answers! Catharsis comes with the cutting of the Gordian knot – Liu Sanlian and Jay are mirrors, unfulfilled, each holding half the right to the man they shared in the strangest of ways, and both ultimately lost. The release comes with letting go, and one of the most emotional aspects of the film is the ultimate, fragile understanding they come to share with each other.
Criticism and Social Commentary
Nonetheless, the film feels at times as if it is trying to stretch in too many directions at once. Themes of parenthood, social pressure, homophobia, taboo relationships and performance vie for attention on the screen, often blotting each other out. In its relatively short runtime, Dear Ex feels at times like an uncomfortable roller-coaster ride, stretching in all directions with its plot running thin and unbelievable, its emotional impact strained and filled with the screech of violins.
However, despite its faults, it sensitively portrays a situation without answers, unfolding with meticulous care the cat’s cradle of blame. Characters behave badly, cruelly, act hysterically or vengefully, but instead of taking the opportunity to call on deeply embedded stereotypes of the jealous wife or the arrogant mistress, it unpacks the myriad of emotions that motivate the humans that fill these stereotypes.
At the same time, it balances a narrative that, while not to the point of serving as a call for action, condemns the consequences of homophobia through its portrayal of the knot of relationships and family tragedy. Tracing the web of culpability back through its tangled threads, we find that although we might rightly accuse the deceased husband of cowardice in being unable to stay firm in either his love for his lover or his choice in his wife, perhaps in a less homophobic world, he wouldn’t have had to be brave. Overall, a film more pioneering on its subject matter than successful in its execution, but nonetheless still touching and engaging to watch.