If you judge the movie by its title, Dear Ex might seem like yet another coming-of-age tragi-romance or romcom set after somebody’s breakup. Yet, in spite of its unfortunately translated English name, this Taiwanese movie is neither of those genres. Instead, Dear Ex is an offbeat family drama that provides not only thought-provoking entertainment, but also an intriguing reflection of societal trends in Taiwan. By transcending many of Sinophone cinema’s usual romantic cliches, Dear Ex offers a strong performance that makes it one of Taiwan’s best films from the past year.
Not A Sappy Breakup Story
Released worldwide earlier this month on Netflix, Dear Ex centers around a 13 year-old boy named Song Chengxi. Chengxi’s closeted homosexual father recently died of cancer, and his mother Liu Sanlian learns that Chengxi’s father named his male lover Ah Jie as his life insurance beneficiary, instead of her or Chengxi.
As the movie opens, we see Sanlian barge up to Ah Jie’s apartment and rage at him. She throws homophobic slurs and exhorts how she needs money to send Chengxi abroad to study; meanwhile, Chengxi sulks in the corner silently. He’s fed up with Sanlian’s tiger mom-ing, and takes this opportunity to rebel and move in with Ah Jie—much to both adults’ annoyance.
Dear Ex then alternates between the three characters’ perspectives. Mixing flashbacks with present day scenes, the film weaves an intricate picture of each characters’ motivations, identities, and pasts—at least for Sanlian and Ah Jie. Though Chengxi is the film’s narrator, we don’t actually learn that much about him as an individual.
However, that de-emphasis may be intentional—while Chengxi and his father both function as sources of tension for Sanlian and Ah Jie’s tug-of-war, it’s Sanlian and Ah Jie that Dear Ex really wants us to learn more about. The movie’s rather meaningful Chinese title《誰先愛上他的》may also provide some insight here; directly translated, it means “who started loving him first.”
The most obvious “him” this title refers to is Chengxi’s father—many of Dear Ex‘s flashbacks explore Sanlian and Ah Jie’s respective relationships with him, and how each relationship either flourished or withered. Sanlian begins the movie adamant that she was “first” in her husband’s heart, but meeting and learning more about Ah Jie (whose ringtone is actually Sanlian’s husband saying “husband, pick up the phone”) forces her to question that reality. Meanwhile, having to care for Chengxi also compels Ah Jie to empathize with Sanlian’s situation.
At the same time, “him” could also refer to Chengxi. While Sanlian is Chengxi’s biological mother, and Ah Jie begins to assume a fatherly role in Chengxi’s life—neither is particularly good at parenting. As Chengxi’s angst at their dispute mounts, Sanlian and Ah Jie must grapple with their lack of familial love. Since Chengxi is the living legacy of the man they both once loved, they discover that starting to truly “love” might be the best way to memorialize their deceased lover.
Arguably, the notion of familial love is even more important than romantic love in Dear Ex, which is why I’d classify it as a family drama and not a romance. Without giving too much away, the movie’s main narrative struggle and character development arc centers around familial reconciliation, not getting over breakups. Of all the characters, Sanlian has the most at stake when it comes to family, and consequently has the most intriguing transformation—enhanced by superb acting that won actress Hsieh Ying-hsuan a 2018 Golden Horse Award (Taiwan’s Oscars) for Best Actress .
Made in Taiwan
Beyond a gripping, thought-provoking story filled with compelling acting—Dear Ex also feels like a movie that couldn’t have been made anywhere in Asia except Taiwan.
The most obvious sign of this is its direct depiction of LGBT characters and themes. While other Asian countries make LGBT movies, they’re usually not for mainstream consumption. Dear Ex is a very mainstream movie, and it topped Taiwan’s box office upon its initial theatrical release in November 2018. This perhaps reflects Taiwan’s continuing reputation as the most LGBT-tolerant nation in East Asia. Despite certain setbacks for LGBT rights during Taiwan’s recent elections, Dear Ex‘s mainstream success both validates and further increases Taiwanese tolerance for LGBT individuals.
Another small detail that stuck out from Dear Ex was how many of its flashbacks stemmed from Chengxi talking with a psychotherapist. Though therapists regularly appear in mainstream Western media, you’ll almost never see them in Chinese, Korean, or Japanese movies. This is because most East Asian countries stigmatize mental healthcare, and thus therapists just aren’t that common in real life either. Though Taiwan isn’t immune from these stigmas, the fact that a mainstream movie like Dear Ex (and also the Netflix-distributed show On Children) depicts psychotherapy in a constructive light hints that Taiwan may at least be ahead of its neighbors.
Like I’ve already said for the TV series On Children, The Teenage Psychic, and A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities—it’s great to see more authentically Taiwanese fare on global streaming platforms like Netflix. Dear Ex is the first Taiwanese feature to join their ranks, and it’s a solid performer that’s already getting lots of international buzz. Especially in the West, the film’s exploration of modern family and LGBT issues should make it a hit among mainstream audiences.
Dear Ex (誰先愛上他)—Taiwan. Dialog in Mandarin Chinese. Directed by Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-yen. First released Nov 2018. Running time 1hr 40 min. Starring Roy Chiu, Hiseh Ying-Hsuan, Spark Chen, and Joseph Huang.