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. This is part two of a two-part conversation.
We also wanted to share some of the experiences we had as fans of the film here in Taiwan. From the very beginning, the release of Your Name Engraved Herein had been surrounded by buzz from international audiences. Prevented from viewing the film in theatres due to the pandemic, fans in Hong Kong, Singapore, or elsewhere looked on with envy as fans in Taiwan sat in at Q&A screenings, flocked to fan meetings, and sold out sing-alongs. We believe that physically attending promotional events for the film had a significant impact on our overall perception of it. We also wanted to share some of our lingering thoughts about the film across our repeat viewings. Enjoy!
Elliott Y.N. Cheung: I remember checking out the trailer on YouTube after seeing a huge banner featuring the two leads at Eslite Xinyi, Taipei’s newly christened 24-hour bookstore. For some reason, it gave me the impression of a run-of-the-mill Boys Love movie, where I figured queer themes wouldn’t be dealt with seriously. I pictured young men displaying highly heteronormative behaviors: fighting over girls, Giddens Ko-style angsty yelling, maybe with a bit of repressed longing, a kiss here and there, something just ‘queer’ enough to be palatable for a primary audience of young women, not something really for queer people.
The first time I actually saw the film (Nick’s second time) was at the Eslite Art House in Songshan. Funnily enough, a technical difficulty made the screen go dark during the penultimate scene, which I think really interfered with my first impressions. However, it was also my first Q&A session at a movie screening in Taiwan, and most of the main actors, as well as Director Liu and Producer Chu, were both present, which was a treat for me. On a first watch, I was trying to digest the film in terms of its formal, technical elements; as such, I asked a question about the use of religion to create narrative tension between the characters, an aspect which I related to personally the most, and nabbed a poster signed by Mimi Shao (who plays Banban) for my efforts.
I did not cry during that first screening. It was on the second screening that I felt the emotional impact of the storytelling; this continued for several screenings afterward, me crying each time at a different point in the movie, which I think emphasizes the overall strength of the characterization and of the actors’ portrayals. Though my first few screenings focused on A-Han’s journey and perspective, my later screenings led me to identify more with Birdy, and to watch his interactions with A-Han, the way his expressions belie the intense contradictions he’s feeling and the self-restriction he feels he must exert. This is definitely a film where the devil is in the details.
Nicholas K.L. Chieng: When I watch a film for the first time, I primarily focus on the emotional development of the characters. The first time I watched this film I focused more on A-Han’s character. The film really gave the audience enough content while leaving enough room for the viewer to project their own interpretations and understanding of the film onto the characters. As queer viewers, it really felt like we were following A-Han on his journey, from discovering his sexuality through his attraction to Birdy, to growing in his feelings for and learning from him, to finally, not only coming into his own, but bravely risking the exposure of his love for Birdy in front of his family.
In that sense, any queer viewer can relate to some degree to whatever point on that journey they are on, from the first moment A-Han senses his difference from the pack, onward to the heart that remains pining for Birdy three decades later. As much as we loudly proclaim marriage equality as the apex of queer rights in our neoliberal society, we also need to remember those forebearers who took the chance to profiter du moment, living as fully as they could, when they could, as they were.
As the audience internalizes what the story is, they will be able to pay more attention to how the story unfolds. When the storytelling techniques become more apparent to the audience, that’s where the emotional (and repeat viewing) appeal of the film lies.
E: Yes, I think a big part of the cultural phenomenon that this film created was the return appeal for viewers. Judging by what we heard at the Q&A sessions (which themselves represent a certain segment of filmgoers), seeing it seven or eight times in theaters was the norm, which puts us at just above average. In contrast, our friend Nick (whom we mentioned earlier) came out at almost thirty viewings, and with a new group of fellow friends to boot, with whom he organized private screenings and fan gatherings.
More than just an expression of consumer loyalty to the film, I think the film itself, as the director’s artistic interpretation of his personal story, also gives greater yields with each viewing. The first time around, for example, the viewer is placed firmly in A-Han’s perspective, experiencing his thrills and heartbreaks with him. However, on a second and third viewing, one already has a basic grasp of the plot details, which liberates them to experience more deeply the world that the film creates. That’s where Tseng Jing-hua’s more subtle performance really shines, whether in the various looks Birdy shares with A-Han in the first third of the film, his unspoken expressions of pain whenever he hurts A-Han, or his torment when A-Han steps in to take the hits from his father.
It was a huge disappointment to many fans that Jing-hua wasn’t nominated for a Golden Horse, but I think he performed splendidly in this role. While you may not immediately warm up to or recognize his acting, I think his performance encompasses perfectly the ways that closeted queer people are often forced to live in the shadows, trying to sneak those small moments of de-‘light’, just like Birdy sneaks A-Han those fateful walnuts.
N: Thanks for sharing that. Do you think that the cinematography bolstered that storytelling through any other means?
E: The cinematography did receive a Golden Horse nomination, and I thought that the style had hints of being experimental. The film makes use of many extreme close-ups and mobile camera angles, giving it some indie film vibes in certain scenes. For example, the scene where Birdy fights with the other boys features a lot of shaky cam to place the viewer at the heart of the action, and at the very beginning, when A-Han asks Father Oliver, “what was the craziest thing you did when you were young?”, the camera does a noticeable pan up towards his face. I thought it was a cute way to give the film a tinge of nostalgia.
I think the extreme closeups, coupled with the oversaturation and soft edges of many scenes featuring A-Han, definitely parallel the experience of reminiscing about youth—how pressing everything feels, loving with reckless abandon as if the world was ending. Especially with scenes featuring both A-Han and Birdy—whether their experiences around Taichung, in Taipei, or Penghu—the tight camerawork seems to highlight that it is their presence, together, in that place, that defines the story and the film. The camera remains close to them in many scenes, their bodies taking up most of the frame and defining the sense of space, rather than placing them in the larger context of the location.
This attention to the camera is most evident in the locker room shower scene, especially after having had the privilege of viewing the Taipei Film Festival (TFF) version, which received a wide release after great fan demand. In the theatrical version, the entire scene bears a greenish tinge, bringing out a grungier, more furtive tone; the TFF version, by contrast, casts the two leads’ bodies in warmer colours, strengthening the romanticized nature of the recollection. By staying up close to their faces, the camera in fact gets out of the way and really allows their highly charged acting to shine.
The scene features little dialogue, most of the action being told through the actors’ impassioned chemistry and interaction. Their physicality and the way they gaze at each other, with longing, restraint, and desire intermingled, tells more than the rosiest dialogue. Conversely, what little words are uttered in that scene seem to reverberate off the bathroom walls with their gravitas. Because much of that scene was in fact ad-libbed by the actors, it almost seemed like they and their characters became one.
N: I remember Hao-sen frequently expressed in interviews that he would communicate with his character in his preparation for the scenes, asking A-Han what more he wanted to say. Behind-the-scenes footage shows them both heaving with sobs under the emotional weight of the scene after the cameras stopped rolling. The story they needed to tell, seemed to transcend the very being of the actors themselves.
E: So we’ve talked about the elements of the movie that we liked. What was it about our viewing experience that made it so special to us?
N: My first viewing was at a special screening organized on the rooftop of Eslite Xinyi, in the heart of the city. Having an open rooftop film screening with a panoramic view of 101 and the rare clear weather of Taipei was truly a blessing, especially in this era of COVID-19. They had cut outs of the actors from the film, and we could also dress up in school uniforms as well as other costumes from the film. Additionally, the actors and the directors came to the screening. Typically, in the United States, attending a pre-release film screening with the main actors and directors on stage sharing the process of filmmaking is an exclusive event for VIPs only. Therefore, I felt like I was getting a treat, and the specific details of what the directors and main actors shared made the event feel extremely intimate. To reiterate, Hao-sen’s mother also joined the screening and watched it for the first time. After Hao-sen unexpectedly emerged from the back singing the OST live at the ending of the film, she went up to talk about the old payphones, fleeting time, talking to someone you love, and how proud she is of her son. Director Liu also shared with us that this was his interpretation of his own first love story as a film. He further mentioned that he had come out to his mother recently. The sharing of these intimate memories both old and new helped to make my experience extremely meaningful.
This was before the film even came out officially in theaters, so viewing it in this particular setting inspired the audience to really share the film on our own individual platforms and with our own community. To some degree, their encouragement and call to action to us felt like such a local, grassroots effort, rather than drawing on the top-down marketing support of a Hollywood-style showbiz apparatus. It felt as if this experience was the seed or the roots and I followed the film to full blossom. Now I’m letting it live and thrive on its own, watching closely from afar, proud of its success and the transparency in its growth.
E: A very huge highlight for me was experiencing the film as the promotional activity unfolded—seeing the impacts it had on public discourse firsthand, and observing how the film staff sought creative ways to get the public to engage with the movie. At every event, they kept the narrative consistent: that they wanted to make a film that normalizes the depiction of queer love, and to help the public initiate those difficult conversations with their friends and family. Throughout the film’s theatrical run, they held Q&A screenings with cast and crew where fans could directly engage with the actors and discuss the film with them. Over this period, the creators also shared meaningful exchanges with fans, where filmgoers talked about coming out to their families or supporting queer loved ones as allies through watching the film together. It really made me reflect on the role of a cultural product in bringing change to society. Even if the film may not be tangibly linked to future social policies, the mark it’s left on the collective memory of its viewers is indelible. Taking place in light of a very successful year for Taiwanese film, both artistically and commercially, it was very special to have been part of its unfolding.
N: Let’s discuss a little bit about gently caressing our new favorite actors’ hands.
E: I’m pretty sure he just shook your hand. Okay, first, I want to point out that I am not typically a superfan! I do not do repeat viewings of films in theatres on a regular basis. (laughs) What tipped the balances for me was the fact that I felt like a rightful fan of this film, which played a key role (see that pun) in how much I related to and invested myself in it. This is a queer story in a Sinophone context, being told in Sinitic languages—as much as I would wish that Hong Kong society could tell a story like this (although Happy Together in some senses has already taken that crown). Thirty years later, older A-Han (played by Tai Lih-ren) teases older Birdy (played by Wang Shih-hsien) about how “nowadays, you can loudly proclaim that you’re gay,” and does this overt hand-waving thing that elicits laughter every time (along with his adorable reaction when Birdy first taps him on the shoulder). While some viewers thought the segment in Canada with their older selves was unrealistic or unnecessary, I thought it provided a valuable perspective on how things have changed societally since then, at least in some senses.
I also found it so wonderful and unique to be experiencing this film, in Taiwan, in 2020, in a place that not only protected itself from the pandemic, but where rather than being racialized as we would be in North America, we can celebrate a queer story being told in our languages, by people who look like us. This took a lot of the self-consciousness about being a fan off of me, and allowed me to really lean into doing things like writing cards to Hao-sen for several viewings, making me feel a part of the fan community. He even came over to shake our hands at the end of one of the screenings!
N: I totally remember that moment because it was so unexpected! There was indeed one moment at Q square after the group photo where Hao-sen took the initiative to shake hands with everyone sitting in the front row including Elliott and me.
All the main actors in this film have had very personal and intimate interactions with fans, including me. This is one of the first real “fan” experiences I let myself get into, too, and I don’t regret it at all. Like you mentioned, the idea is that Taiwan is a relatively small country and this film needed to create its own niche in a tightly knit film industry, so one of the great pleasures of filmgoing in Taiwan is the sheer amount of opportunities for up-close engagement. We figured that perhaps the more post-show Q&A events we participated in, the higher the chance of the stars recognizing us and our contributions as fans. I personally wrote three cards that I knew successfully reached Hao-sen either directly to his nicely sized hands or the staff.
When our friend Nick, Elliott and I took a last-minute trip to Taichung for one of their earlier “flash” fan meets, we were also very lucky to have a solo picture with most of the main cast. Hao-sen felt so moved and humbled by the fervor of the fans who showed up that he consistently expressed immense gratitude. It felt like there was a chance to really know him and walk with him at the outset of his career because he admirably allowed himself to be vulnerable in front of fans. Hao-sen also became moved to tears at many of the events, both from my own observations and other first-hand fan accounts. Then, he proceeded to exchange with fans his feelings about how far they had come together.
On October 27th, four days before the Taipei Pride Parade, Your Name’s social media released the official details of their second book signing in Tianmu. Immediately, Nick, Elliott and I started to strategically plan in comparison to how passionate other fans would probably be based on our previous experience with Your Name’s first sing-a-long. The day of the first sing-a-long event, which was held to commemorate their breaking $80 million NTD at the box office, we arrived at a time that we had thought was early enough. However, it turned out that the first person in line had lined up overnight, which had previously been cautioned against by the staff. Others had been gradually piling in since the wee hours of the morning. By the time we arrived, we were already too late as they only accepted 500 people for a photo session with the actors. We vowed to ourselves that we would line up as early as we could for the next event they held.
The next event, a book signing, came around the day after their appearance at Pride, which shows the link between the queer community and the success of this film. None of us had been to Tianmu, the venue of the signing, but obviously it didn’t matter because we didn’t hesitate to set a 5 AM arrival time. When we got there, however, there were already more than 100 people lining up. Nick decided to walk to the nearest McDonalds to grab breakfast and use the toilet. During that time, the entire line was suddenly instructed by the staff to move closer to an entrance of the mall, which led to some frantic scurrying. I had just fallen asleep and woke up to the sounds of shoes smacking against the concrete, racing to try and get an even earlier spot in line. People were serious, not just to get their book signed, but to really get that special moment with the actors, specifically Hao-sen.
After Nick returned with breakfast, we realized that we had another five or so hours before they handed out the number card. In that time, when I wasn’t sleeping on the concrete, I wondered to myself what we were even doing in line. Overall, these types of official events had been strategically marketed to fans. Most of these events were not advertised more than five days in advance, which led fans to stay alert and zealous for the next chance to get up close and intimate with the actors.
Speaking of intimacy, Hao-sen and Jing-Hua’s off-camera intimacy doesn’t seem forced. Whether it was on an Instagram Live stream or an official Youtube Channel interview, they often spoke candidly and warmly about their experiences on and off camera. This stemmed from the two-month period they lived in a dorm together at the request of the directors, as well as their time working together. I felt that they really represented what a “healthy” image of masculinity could be to a certain extent: true vulnerability, honesty and showing actual platonic love.
E: All in all, the magic of the film, whether its story or the chemistry and love shared between the cast, crew, and fans, really pulled its many fans into a world of its own making. Whether planning last-minute trips to fan meets in Taichung, or becoming notorious among our friend groups for practically working for the promotional staff, we were fully immersed in supporting and following the success of this film, which we don’t regret at all. It was a welcome escape from our day-to-day tedium and a super memorable experience.
On December 27th, 2020, a ‘graduation ceremony’ was held to formally signify the end of promotional activity for the film. While only Nick was able to attend, it was a bittersweet marker nevertheless that this journey had come to an end for both of us. A few days prior, however, YNEH received its global Netflix release, meaning that audiences back in North America would also have the film at their fingertips.
E: Given our enthusiasm for a film that we felt finally represented us and our stories, we were both really excited to share this film with our networks back home. In that sense, it was both thrilling and nerve-wracking to await the reactions that our friends and family would have. Depending on whether or not they had the historical and cultural context, some of the leads’ actions might come off illogical or unreasonable, or some of the plot elements might be difficult to understand. However, we were also looking forward to our queer Asian friends seeing it, being moved alongside us, and feeling the same sense of pride in it that we did.
As always, it ended up a mixed bag of some of our fears coming true, but some of our hopes as well. For one, I was surprised how a lot of viewers interpreted Birdy as bisexual instead of him dating Banban in order to throw the scent off of him and A-Han. Personally, although there was some judgment from loved ones who couldn’t quite digest the material, the film did accomplish its goal of sparking conversation and providing a framework with which to share about queer issues. In particular, I was really happy to watch and discuss the film with some Taiwanese Canadian friends who had also come from a church background. I also know that Nick received a lot of insightful comments and positive feedback from his network.
Overall, following this film was a pretty life-changing experience for me. I gained numerous happy memories, as well as a valuable potential research topic (?). In a year otherwise full of misery and destruction, this film was a reminder of life’s hope and purpose, as well as the tenacity one finds in being queer, and made me feel incredibly grateful to be in Taiwan. I can’t wait to see what works are on the horizon for Taiwanese cinema in 2021, and hope that one day soon, I can find the courage and means to express my own work in such an impactful way, and influence people’s opinions through my own art-making.
N: When I arrived at the graduation event, I was surprised to find that people had worn their actual graduation gowns from school to the event. Fan-made memorabilia abounded, from photo cards to ribbon pins. For everyone who attended, the staff had prepared an official ‘certificate of graduation’ as well as a lottery for official posters—one last chance to give out fanservice. It was evident that fans were deeply invested in the film to the end, to the point that they came out in droves for a physical graduation event.
I found it interesting that they called it a “graduation” because it implies a journey that we started with them when they were baby first-year students. Now, they’ve reached the end of this chapter. They’re thankful for us, the underclassmen, so they show us tokens of appreciation. Perhaps we are the 學弟和學妹 who want to keep their legacy alive for as long as we can, so it becomes bittersweet, something engraved in the deepest part of our hearts.