Seems like queer East Asian filmmakers might see Taiwan as a beacon in their region. The country’s far from perfect, but as the only one in the whole region to permit same-sex marriage and other civil rights, filmmakers there are on a mission to capture the queer experience in case it falls victim to stereotypes or bizarre audience expectations. So comes Your Name Engraved Herein, just reaching American audiences on streaming services after garnering a whopping $100 million in Taiwan this past fall.
Director Kuang-Hui Liu's second feature opens as Taiwan's decades-long martial law ends circa 1987. A new freedom dawns and the students at an all-male Catholic school find themselves in the midst of a cultural euphoria. Reserved Jia-han (Edward Chen) is smitten by the mercurial, wild-spirited Birdy (Tseng Jing-Hua), but despite the hopes of a new enlightenment, the patriarchal sway of the old ways still holds firm in the mind of Taiwan's citizens.
Herein's path forward is familiar, but expressed in such a literary quality that its tropes feel fresher. Cinematographer Hung-i Yao steals the show (his work here won him the Golden Horse, Taiwan's highest film award, for Best Cinematography) with frames that ooze copper-tinted nostalgia. Skillful blocking from Liu builds quiet scenes wherein Birdy and Jia-han mull their attraction—these are some of the best moments in recent international cinema. Liu brings such a wonderful naturalism to his project, in fact, that you'll want to see more young lovers steal movie posters as a way to bond.
The youthful optimism reaches its inevitable halt, however, demonstrated by a sequence which finds the students participating in competitive military drills. Birdy leads what becomes an impromptu musical march that faces harsh rejection from the powers that be. When our leads realize "new" is still tantamount to "dangerous," Herein's strengths begin to falter. It descends into repetitive, soapy melodrama, and while boys screaming and crying about love can be a lot of queer fun, you can't help but wish it would speed up. Given its strong start, this is a sad stumble. Thankfully a wonderful finale keeps Liu's film afloat, even if Herein sails into port weighted down.
Thus, it isn't a knockout, but folks who like sentimental storytelling (yours truly) will fall hard; audiences unfamiliar with Taiwan's cinematic style and output not so much. Still, Liu's directorial future is bright and hopefully his subsequent works can find a better balance within the melodrama while holding tight to the naturalism at which he excels.
+ Technically well crafted; involving character drama
– Bit much on the many, many tears
Your Name Engraved Herein
Directed by Kuang-Hui Liu
With Chen and Tseng
Netflix, NR, 118 min.