Reflecting on the Critical Success of Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字)

by Elliott Y.N. Cheung and Nicholas K.L. Chieng

Photo Credit: Film Still

SPOILER ALERT. This is a full-disclosure discussion about the film between two avid fans who have viewed the film upwards of ten times. Plot details feature heavily. You have been warned.

Hi readers! We’re Elliott and Nicholas, two avid fans of this year’s smash hit Taiwanese queer romance, Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字 or YNEH), which was just released worldwide on Netflix. We’re delighted to share with you some insights from our many viewings of the film in theatres and hope that you will feel encouraged to share the film with your friends and family as well. This is part one of a two-part conversation.

Let’s open with some introductory thoughts, shall we?

Elliott Y.N. Cheung:  There’s a lot I could say on this topic, but for starters there’s so much about Taiwan that you can’t find out without physically being and living here. This is an understanding that we’ve both come to throughout our time as residents here, and one that permeates the way we approach this film. That said, Hong Kong, my home, and Taiwan have always been connected in various ways: through language, culture, flow of ideas, people, and goods, and now, more than ever, through geopolitics. These form a big part of why this film speaks to me.

My greatest outlet to understanding the film in its temporal context is through paralleling the ‘80s experience between the two places. My knowledge of this period is based on what my parents have shared with me. As a young hetero couple coming of age in Hong Kong during its heyday, they flirted with the latest fashions and attended concerts by Japanese idols. Their experiences become a lens through which I try to interpret the experiences of A-Han (Edward Hao-Sen Chen) and Birdy (Tseng Jing Hua), who in real life would be a couple of years younger than my parents, and what there is to learn about the ‘80s experience in Taiwan as a young queer person facing the end of martial law and its many legacies.

I think an important element for me is the historicity of that period and what its representation means in terms of filling out the canon for gay Taiwanese audiences. Birdy “collecting” movie posters, A-Han’s bowl cut and bell bottoms, eating bagged beef noodles in the cinema, as well as A-Han’s adorable striped Tommy shirts and Birdy’s overalls, are all suggestions of the image of freedom that young people were faced with when social values ostensibly caught up to a burgeoning economy. In particular, a poster of Hong Kong entertainer Leslie Cheung, a queer icon, is the only Asian face on A-Han’s wall. Just as Leslie and his songs were beloved to my mum and her nostalgic recollections of that era, those influences seeped down into the way I imagined A-Han and Birdy enjoying the frivolities of youth.

In contrast with the cosmopolitan and neoliberalist Hong Kong of the late ‘80s, Taiwan faced the end of martial law and the beginning of a reckoning with the social restrictions of the past. The inclusion of important historical events, such as the death of Chiang Ching-kuo and the appearance of a young Chi Chia-wei, the father of the Taiwanese gay rights movement, makes the film more faithful and powerful in its impact. In this context, Birdy’s brief interaction with Chi strikes fear into him about what might befall him and A-Han. As Chi is accosted by the neighbourhood police, Birdy attempts to intervene and shouts in vain for them to let Chi go. When Chi tries to grab on to Birdy, their eyes meet for a brief moment before he is taken away.

Up until that point in the film, Birdy has been the bolder one, A-Han cautious and unsure of his budding feelings. From then on, Birdy starts to err more on the side of caution, his family’s conservative values exacerbating his efforts to keep A-Han at arm’s length out of fear of societal backlash. In response, A-Han becomes more and more overt about hanging out with Birdy. It’s evident that this is a turning point, as the two shift in different directions.

Nicholas K.L. Chieng:  Yeah, it’s interesting how the trajectory of both their characters’ journeys end up interwoven with each other in the film. Watching our leads navigate being queer and sorting out their entanglement with each other in that sociopolitical milieu, is part of what gives the film its unique tone.

Growing up, I had never learned much about Taiwan aside from briefly going to a Taiwanese Mandarin Saturday school for one and a half years. My father’s side is extremely pro-China, so I had only heard negative opinions before my study abroad at National Chengchi University (NCCU) in my third year of university. However, my half-year experience in Taipei really opened my mind and heart to a vibrant, democratic island nation full of books and braised meats.

At first, I was apprehensive about looking at this film with too much of a North American lens. However, bias is inevitable. I would argue that in fact my understanding of the film as a queer person, from an ostensibly North American perspective, contributes a queer and culturally sensitive analysis, adding to the relatability of this film.

When I watched the bullying scene in the locker room, I wondered if other audience members thought it was “just” another bullying scene, a situation that “all gay people at some point in their life encounter”. I thought to myself, “What sorts of messages about socialization might this scene convey to the audience? Where might they think the bullies’ tendencies come from?” This scene did not simply contain “homophobia” in a physically violent sense; their words were arguably equally or more violent. What was the reason they so badly wanted A-Han to “K死他” (lit. beat him to death)? What could make them hate someone that much? The stigmatization of being called the slur “咖仔” (lit. f****t) evidently amounts to a near death-sentence as alluded to in this scene. Then I thought to myself, “What did the bullies’ performance of gender and sexuality indicate about the social norms of that time period in Taiwan?” In that era, a wrong glance in the locker room could be misconstrued as lethal, infectious sexual deviance. This did not begin in the martial law period, nor did it end with it; the legacies of sexuality-based violence continue to bear significance in the societal discourse of today’s Taiwan.

It would be obvious to view the film solely in the capacity of a Boys’ Love romance that, because of the times, just wasn’t meant to be. In the same breath, watching the film was a sobering reminder of the isolation of queer life. In short, it’s a lonely world to be queer because society doesn’t value anything other than performing the “correct” role under a heteronormative structure. There’s this idea of performing the “correct” role: Be diligent in your studies, adhere to the gender binary, do not talk back, do not protest, stick to your section. Older Birdy even mentioned at the end that they weren’t allowed to essentially express or be who they really were. Although it is more “open” now, in some regards nothing much has changed because some people still virulently hate other people just for existing. The hate has simply become more hidden and less overt.

EC:  Each audience member inadvertently brings their own experiences to bear in their understanding of the film. I also hope that as audience members engage with the film, the writing, the scenes, and the actors’ performances they can critically harness those experiences to glean new insights into their own identities.

NC:  One scene that is ‘engraved’ into my mind is the smooth, immediate cut into the flashback of A-Han calling Birdy from the high school reunion scene. That scene stood out to me because of how it brings the original title track into the film full circle. The first time I watched it, the lead actor Hao-sen’s mother was in the audience. She mentioned that at that time you had to keep putting in money into the payphones, or else the call would suddenly end once the payphone ate up all the money. This added another layer to that scene that a majority of the audience didn’t even think of, because most of us never had to rely on payphones in that way—that even attention to historical detail in this film was an aspect that pushed forward the tension between A-Han and Birdy.

EC:  The film also had a central religious motif that added another layer to their tragic love story. Though this film is packed with impactful scenes, I was most struck by A-Han’s scenes with Father Oliver. I myself grew up in a Christian home (This line alone is really triggering to me) with the cultural values of an ethnically Han family. Being an only child, I felt pressure to get married and have children; I was also taught at school that homosexuality was a sin, which kept me deep in the closet until my last year of high school. In my first two years of university, I met a pastor whom I thought I could confide in; however, he was a religious conservative, and made me deeply question not only my sexuality, but the validity of my faith, which at that time was the core of my identity, and my very right to love and be loved as a person. This caused me to eventually depart from the church.

The film is punctuated by these exchanges in medias res between A-Han and Father Oliver. Most of what we see as narrative action is in fact told from the perspective of A-Han’s recollection. The scenes align thematically with the questions A-Han asks in the hermitage, not only of Father Oliver, but of God, and of himself. Many of these questions are drawn from his Christian environment and his struggles therewith. For example, A-Han quotes from the Sermon on the Mount as he cries out to Father Oliver: “Didn’t the Bible say, ‘Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you!?’” In another scene, he begs Father Oliver, “Please help me get to hell…don’t all homosexuals deserve to go to hell? Perhaps more people would understand me there.” The audience later finds out about Father Oliver’s sexuality at the close of the film, but he seems to have been an active bystander in all of this, a helpless witness to the fate of his beloved pupil. There was nothing he could do but to counsel A-Han, and try to “save” him from the torment of walking the same journey he did as best he could.

A-Han’s questions are ones that I too once hurled at God and at religious authority figures, whether alone at night through a moonlit window, or over lunch the day my pastor asked me, “So…you’re saying you aren’t struggling anymore?” I have found myself many times in A-Han’s shoes: not fitting in with friends without knowing why, feeling embarrassed, even disgusted, at the way other boys talked about girls. When I began to feel attracted to someone of the same sex, those feelings were choked out from the outset by shame, confusion, and rage. Every interaction felt magnetic and dangerous, something that needed to stop but that I desperately wanted to continue, a fact for which I hated and questioned myself constantly. I demanded to know “why” from someone who promised they’d have all the answers. “Why me? Why him?” But the burden of answering those questions fell onto no one but myself. For too long, I was afraid to ask, out of fear that my life as I knew it would fall apart, that those who loved me would suddenly say they never did.

At last, the curtain closes on that chapter of A-Han’s life, and he leaves Birdy behind on the island where they shared their final moments together. Watching this, I could not help but be carried along the waves of A-Han’s desperate calls, sobbing with him in the hermitage or crying out alongside him at an uncaring sea.

On that point, the film has had a lot of impact locally in Taiwan, and was just released globally on Netflix. Let’s talk a bit about what  the critiques, limitations, and possibilities for the film going forward are.

NC:  A majority of works have limitations in representing the queer community because hegemony conceals and normalizes the exclusion of the most marginalized populations. Those who resonated with the film evidently felt a degree of relatability and visibility, myself included. However, a vast majority of the queer community do not simply choose to “be” activists because their existence in and of itself is radical. Their livelihoods are courageous by nature of existing in a world not built for them. However, only cisgender gay men are featured in this film. Some argue that it just isn’t what the film is about, which is true, but at the same time, it doesn’t mean a film cannot make room for those individuals in some way.

Many fans, such as myself, wrestle with the idea of this film as a “queer” film vs. queer-friendly film, i.e. a film with heterosexual actors and gay thematic schemes. This film leads me to think about how romance doesn’t need to just be an idealized notion of love sold to us by mainstream society. Romance can be queer, romance takes work, romance encompasses all the pain and struggles in between. That’s why we concur with the directors’ statement that this isn’t just a “gay film”, but a “romance film”.

EC:  This question is something that we’ve both really wrestled with: the pros and cons of a politics of representation, to what extent different marginalized groups benefit from and can identify with it, or if and how they can be harmed by it. I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar where I could directly pose this question to Director Liu, to which he responded that commonly, if the gay community sees a gay man playing a gay man, they might actually feel less inclined to see the film mostly because of its verisimilitude. This logic falls somewhere along the lines of, “Why should I watch a gay man (who might already be seen as effeminate, or less ‘manly’ than a straight man) on screen, when I would rather see a (hot) straight man ‘play gay’, and have my fantasies about them fulfilled?” This, and the commercial considerations of selecting actors based on their attractiveness, touches precisely on the limitations of representation as well as hegemonic values towards themselves that gay men have internalized.

While this could lead to much further discussion, I think it suffices to say that while young cis gay men might be the subject of this film, they definitely were not the primary reason for its commercial success, and popular representation still has a long way to go in terms of inclusion for marginalized groups, as well as pushing a tonal shift among the audience represented. The film’s successful production, release, and distribution are a huge step forward for the diversity of the Taiwanese film industry as well as queer representation, and one that deserves our support. However, one also needs to consider whether this step might lead them to be further tokenized in Taiwan’s cultural soft power initiatives, or whether the depiction could end up leading to the entrenchment of harmful stereotypes surrounding queer experience.

EC:  The Golden Horse Awards are a prime example of seeing the issues of representation and soft power at play. They’re kind of like the “Sinophone Oscars”. In 2018, a controversy erupted where Fu Yue, the director of Our Youth in Taiwan, a documentary about the Sunflower Movement, stated in her speech that she hoped one day Taiwan would be recognized as a “truly independent entity”. This led China to boycott this and last year’s awards. Conversely, however, this year’s ceremony has been lauded for playing host to the minority. It was in the midst of this controversy that YNEH emerged as a popular favourite, having been nominated for 5 different categories, with Hao-sen nominated for Best New Actor. Though he did not win, YNEH and other contemporary films released in 2020 cement Taiwan as a haven of free speech and civil society in the Sinophone world. This year alone has seen talented artists from Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore take home awards, which serves both to increase Taiwan’s visibility and strengthen its links to other countries in the region on the basis of a remarkable line from Mo Tzu-yi’s award speech for Best Male Lead: “To freedom, to equality, to innate human rights, to film, to creation, and to life.”

There is power in using nostalgia and the recollection of youth as a narrative device to place the YNEH in conversation with other contemporary works. Producer Chu’s opus as a leading name in Taiwanese idol dramas, and pivotal role in the success of past hits such as It Started with a Kiss and A Boy Named Flora A, could be said to have set a precedent for every aspect of this film’s existence. I do believe it’s constructive to view it in this genre context, evoking the audience’s ideas of ‘youth’, giving them recollection of a time when they were more idealistic, and inspiring their vision for the future.

NC:  Christophe Bruncher, one of the speakers at the Taiwan Creative Content Fest, remarked about how filmmakers can go “big” (Read: international). He mentioned that most people make the mistake of making films with a lot of “international” themes – Hollywood-style action or romance, for example – to appeal to a wider audience, but it really is the “local” motifs that draw in international audiences. For them, experiencing national cinemas vicariously through film is more exciting than the “international” motifs. This was after hearing about the Netflix deal. Prior to watching this conference, I had a more cynical reaction. On the one hand I am extremely excited for my friends to view this film. Evidently, going “global” such as streaming on Netflix, would accomplish that. Additionally, it brings in more money for the people that are a part of the film and allows Taiwanese films a platform to tell quintessentially Taiwanese stories, whether in featuring the Taiwanese language, stories about Taiwanese people, locales in Taiwan, or other signifiers of connection to this island.

On the other hand, my fear is that a future formula for “going global” will result in formulaic storytelling that moves away from those “quintessentially Taiwanese” aspects of Taiwanese film. Film is one of the closest mediums to life itself; it has the power to place even the most disbelieving audience member into the shoes of another. Thus, film is one of the most effective mediums to share Taiwanese experiences to the rest of the world, especially when Taiwan is often excluded on the world stage. Stripping Taiwanese film of its place-based qualities for mainstream consumption, keeps the casual observer in the dark about what makes this place special.

Because our identities exist continually as a process, viewers must be willing to unpack and dissect their own stories in order to authentically engage with a work of art. Acknowledging and confronting the nuances of their own life, and thus reaching a point of utmost vulnerability, is what allows a film’s storytelling to touch their heart. Because of the immediately consumptive nature of viewing a film on Netflix, I’m concerned that viewers will not come to a viewing of this film primed to absorb the full extent of the nuance this film could bring them to. Nor will they necessarily decode this film as “quintessentially Taiwanese”, because of the paucity of information about Taiwan that is both accurate and widely available.

EC:  I’m honestly really excited that people outside of Taiwan will be able to view the film and get a look at what’s happening in Taiwan in terms of queer civil society and cultural discourse. I do want to emphasize that the film is and remains a commercial cultural product, and its distribution on Netflix, along with the company’s own incentives, represents the level of involvement that such transnational media companies have on the construction of our cultural narratives. However, this is precisely why it’s important to create critical discourse surrounding the film, so viewers of different backgrounds can make sense of it in their own context, and so that what it represents for Taiwanese queer society and in a Sinophone context can be rightfully appreciated. Echoing Nick’s remarks, I’m concerned about this film’s consumption by the mainstream (read: white-dominated) LGBT community, because of the potential for Orientalist thinking in mistakenly attributing this as a “commercially successful gay film from Asia”. This is a decontextualized take that flattens Taiwan’s unique place-based history of gay rights advocacy arising from its own context and spanning nearly 30 years. This is a Taiwanese story and should not be mistaken for anything less.

I do think that in its characterization of queer experiences, YNEH definitely changes the tone from  mere regret about a missed opportunity that could’ve been taken if not for time and convenience, to a deep melancholy about the structural obstacles facing queer youth, the love that really could not be. The stakes are raised ever higher by the leads’ exploration of non-heteronormative sexualities, like the blooming of a desert flower. I think the existence of this film opens the possibility for the definition of youth narratives to evolve and become more inclusive, and through that, for Taiwanese society itself to think more inclusively. Lines like “Every person’s first love is as heart-rending as a movie of epic proportions” may feel trite in a heteroromantic context, but they become charged with thwarted desire and forbearing devotion in a queer context.

NC:  After living in Brazil for a year, I began to engage my non-romantic relationships in a more intimate way than I had before in high school. Through my experiences, I’ve come to respect friendship in the same regard as romantic relationships. In fact, platonic friendships are underrated, though not by coincidence, because society over-values romantic relationships. This is lowkey asinine and an unnatural view hegemonically forced upon us. Friendships affect your life in the same way romantic relationships do. Popular art or media tend not to express or discuss the depth and nuances that friendships can take. In some ways, as Issa Rae says, “‘friendships are relationships. They are romances; you love your friends”. 

What do we do when it’s nobody’s fault? How can we accept, embrace, acknowledge, and heal from a breakup? In some ways, I think that this film, especially the ending, lets the audience know that you can be an older gay cisgender man and still want to desire and be desired while living in consummated memories. As demonstrated by the scene between A-Han and the older man in the park, older gay men deal with being abandoned by hegemonic social standards of desirability despite being the ones who paved the path for younger gay men to live as openly as they do. During their long midnight walk, A-Han and Birdy wrestle with all sorts of unresolved desires and the vagaries of time. Birdy delivering the first “晚安” to A-Han, demonstrates his acknowledgement that he did, against all odds, love him, and that pushing him away did nothing to invalidate that fact. The time had come for them both to say aloud without regret, that this was a love where time flew by and didn’t pass a single bit, a time they’d always recall with a hint of fondness, a faulted love that if given the chance, they would do all over again.

The fact that the director possessed the appropriate distance to be able to tell his story through film demonstrates the possibility of reaching closure—that even if you think about painful memories from time to time, embracing that can be an act of empowerment. Simultaneously, the ending also showed that nothing has the power to define how ‘okay’ you are aside from yourself. Most of the time, we’re all over the place, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t okay. In fact, it’s okay to not be okay because we don’t need to be 100% healed to deserve love.