Literally translating the Chinese title to “Who Started Loving Him First?” gives us a lot more insight into what this film is actually about; perhaps, rather, it could have been “Who Did He Start Loving First?” ー the “he” referring to recently deceased Song Zheng-yuan. We spend the film with the people who surrounded Zheng-yuan’s life: his teenage son Song Chen-hsi; his ex-wife Liu San-Lien; and the male lover Chieh he left them both for in his final few weeks and months of life. When a battle for Zheng-yuan’s life insurance money forces these three characters into each other’s company, chaos ーpredictablyー arises.
Initially, Dear Ex (2018, Mag Hsu & Hsu Chih-Yen) feels like some kind of parody: there is melodrama, screaming, fighting, stropping ー and that’s all in the first ten minutes. It can be hard at the start of the film to sympathise with San-Lien in her melodramatic (and often homophobic) interactions with Chieh: she starts the film off hammering his door down with her fists and calling him a pervert. Conversely, Chieh seems comparatively unbothered by the death of his lover, (the man for whom he spent years pining and months caring,) making jokes and puns back at San-Lien. Sat in the middle is the teenage Chen-hsi, who retreats into himself and lashes out against his overbearing mother. Later, he even refuses to go home with her, and ends up living with Chieh in order to try and persuade him to hand over the money.
As we will learn to understand, everyone deals with grief differently; only later will we be enlightened on the complex emotional journeys that brought the characters to three such heightened states. It’s a bold first step on which to start the narrative ー but one that, I think, eventually pays off.
Top Tip: Don’t let overacting early on put you off; it will all make sense soon
Dear Ex challenges norms of emotional progression. To take San-Lien as an example, she starts the film at a 10. Thus, she seems to have nowhere to go but down; instead, her feelings meander around as different parts of her psyche swell and contract. Her existence appears defined by manifestations of desperation: she has stories-high expectations for Chen-hsi, babying him to the extreme; when Zheng-yuan tells her that he’s gay and that he’s leaving her, even then she still clings physically and emotionally onto him. As the only star to win one of several acting nominations at the Golden Horse Awards (the Taiwanese equivalent of the Oscars) Hsieh Ying-xuan as San-Lien is deserving of every praise for executing this non-traditional journey with style and conviction.
The film’s format necessitates complex emotional progression, because the narrative too refuses to take a linear path; there is not a heavy plot, as such, but rather a focus on discovering and exploring from all angles the unique situation in which San-Lien, Chen-hsi and Chieh find themselves. The first half is perhaps the most traditional, walking us through Chen-hsi’s perspective; presented as a diary, he sketches over scenes and reveals to us his teenage cynicism ー helped by his much-restrained confessions in therapy sessions. However, Chieh starts to invade the narrative with flashbacks as early as twenty minutes in, stealing us away from the slowly-passing days of the present. Towards the end of the film, San-Lien does the same: marching into the therapist’s office and demanding a session there and then (amazing power move, by the way), she carves out her own space to tell her side of the story.
A lot of the film is interesting to look at ー I remember Chieh’s delightfully Bohemian apartment and the bright, bustling city juxtaposing the darkness of grief.
Biggest Gay Mood: using 70s door beads as interior design
Still, for me, it is in the flashbacks that Dear Ex’s cinematography really stands out.
Sonically, a melancholy whistle motif appears in the soundtrack to signify the trigger of a memory, usually either before or just after a flashback takes over the screen. Zheng-yuan’s voice seems to echo in the scene: he feels far away, out of reach, unattainable.
Aesthetically, each flashback has a unique style to reflect its mood:
Early on in the film, Chieh remembers his lover teaching him guitar. Inside his apartment, the red wallpaper stands out in the shot, highlighting the lust and passion between the two men. And yet, as Zheng-yuan discourages Chieh from telling his mother about their relationship, the yellow light brings out the sadness in his eyes. During this flashback, Zheng-yuan is often placed just out of camera shot; like Chieh must do to conjure up the memory, we have to strain to see his face, blurred and out-of-focus.
Soon after, we see the two men in Chieh’s bathroom. Weakened by chemotherapy and in intense physical pain, Zheng-yuan feels bitter and despairing when he realises he is losing his hair. Framed by the hall’s red wallpaper that surrounds the doorway, we see the two men contained within the sorrowful blue light of the bathroom.
Towards the end of the film, we see Chieh flash back to his time caring for Zheng-yuan in the hospital. He enters the room joyfully, telling his lover that he has sneaked him in steamed dumplings. In contrast, Zheng-yuan ーnow completely baldー lies down in the hospital bed with a pained facial expression. The artificial light of the room serves to demarcate how useless Chieh’s merry disposition is when facing the harsh reality of Zheng-yuan’s condition.
San-Lien’s main flashback is significantly hazier: she taking us further back in time, and it has been longer since she has seen Zheng-yuan; the memory has faded. As Zheng-yuan tells his wife that he is gay and that he wants a divorce, the same baby pink light we saw when they first met comes streaming through the window of the office; this time, however, the rosy hue feels mocking and cruel. The camera angle brings San-Lien into the light and Zheng-yuan into the dark, focusing on her reaction; after all, sitting in her impromptu therapy session, she is exploring her own emotions.
Overall, Dear Ex shows us that emotional growth does not have to project in a linear fashion. You’re in for an unexpectedly introspective, touching and sensitive story if you can just let Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-Yen convince you that sometimes it’s worth the wait.
You can watch Dear Ex on Netflix now.
The film can be watched in the UK, USA, Canada and at least 30 other territories. Check if it’s available in your country here.