Marketed as part- queer coming-of-age story part- bittersweet romance, Taiwan’s most popular film of 2020 landed on global Netflix in December. Complete with a seemingly deep and enigmatic title, Your Name Engraved Herein (Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu, 2020) sells itself as arthouse queer cinema out in the mainstream; it is, after all, the highest-grossing LGBT film in Taiwanese cinematic history. And yet, having reached the end of an intense and brooding 1 hour and 54 minutes, I couldn’t help but ask… am I missing something?
The film starts off with such promise. In the opening shots, yellowish light shines on our bloodied main character, A-Han, as he narrates our not-quite-love story. It is 1987, the year that martial law ended in Taiwan, in an extended flashback forms the majority of the film. A-Han meets Birdy, the kooky new kid at his all boys school, and soon we follow their blossoming friendship. As the boys get closer, the two of them, along with their classmates and families, start to question their relationship.
Biggest Gay Mood: eye-fucking during your school’s minute silence
Atmosphere is one thing Your Name Engraved Herein certainly does well. The homoerotic but also homphobic all boys school energy is crafted from the onset. Boys joke around with each other but also fight: in one scene, A-Han and Birdy witness a (sort of out) gay kid at being beaten up in the bathroom by bullies who are about to burn his genitalia with a lighter.
Within this environment, the application of (normally straight) teen cinema tropes is promising: especially, the normal kid’s (A-Han) fascination and eventual infatuation with the quirky newcomer to the school (Birdy).
The first half of the film, indeed, filled me with hope. And I noted down some beautiful moments. In one early scene, Birdy comes to A-Han’s bed to say hello while everyone else is sleeping. They chat ー one could say innocently flirt ー inside the protection of a mosquito net around A-Han’s bunk; a thin veil protecting them, albeit transparently, from the outside world. Birdy brings food to share: nuts stolen from the dorm’s head office, adding to the idea that this illicit meeting is taboo. The sound of the cracking walnut shells reminds us of fast, excited heartbeats.
In one later scene, the boys sneak into a projection room. They play around with the equipment and chat about movies; Birdy confides in A-Han that he wants to be a filmmaker.
In this same scene, Birdy is messing around in front of the projector screen when A-Han uses his hand as a shadow face that kisses Birdy during the climax of his romantic movie role play.
It bears repeating: the film starts off with such promise.
Top Tip: Pay close attention to the details in this one: the water dripping down the boys faces in the shower, how the blood on A-Han’s sweating face resembles tears and reminds us of religious imagery, the shimmering water reflecting golden light onto contemplative faces. It’s all worth taking in.
This, dear reader, is where I have to warn you about something: normally, I avoid major plot spoilers in my reviews; sadly, here, they are necessary for my critique. So, if you’re planning on watching this film (at your own risk) then look away now.
You see, the problem with Your Name Engraved Herein comes after the build up, before the comedown. The thing is, A-Han and Birdy never actually get there.
I could take you through an extensive list of furtive glances (practically all the fucking time) or almost kisses (in a cinema room when Birdy is asleep). One scene, about halfway through the film, exemplifies my frustrations perfectly.
Birdy has been injured in a scooter accident, and A-Han goes into a stall with him to help him shower. A-Han works his way over Birdy’s body and move down, despite protests, to give him a handjob. Eventually Birdy gives in (to desire?) and kisses A-Han. The two embrace under hot water and steam as they wash the suds away.
On one hand, there are many aspects of this scene that could be praised if it were framed better:
- A moment of heightened intimacy occurring between two schoolboys in a shower cubicle could be an astute comment on the intricacies of private and public space for queer men in unaccepting societies (the shower cubicle being somewhat a private and somewhat a public space). Unfortunately, the lack of consent from Birdy and visible discomfort of both characters makes this moment, for me, not one of intimacy at all.
- After Birdy kisses A-Han, the camera unexpectedly lingers on the latter’s face, focusing on his reaction and giving us more insight into his emotional journey. Unfortunately, A-Han does not reciprocate the uncomfortably long kiss, and instead seems confused and tense, which makes this potentially romantic moment meaningless. And when the camera eventually pans to Birdy, he is looking down, ashamed and broken.
- At the end of the scene, the boys press their foreheads together, letting out emotion and tension as the hot water and steam surrounds them. Unfortunately, instead of bringing them closer, this interaction seems to drive them apart further; A-Han ends the scene by turning away.
There are other scenes which had the potential to be the moment that the boys finally realise, at the same time and in the same place, that they are romantically and sexually attracted to one another. Indeed, they even go wild water swimming together naked: a known catalyst for adolescent queer sexual awakening here at Every Gay Movie. But this sequence is just as disappointing as the shower scene, if not more so. At the end of the scene, A-Han strokes the sand off Birdy’s naked chest and places his mouth unceremoniously on Birdy’s. Neither of their mouths move at all, and you would be hard pushed to call this a kiss.
Perhaps it is with a modern and a Western viewpoint that I require more than just physical closeness and intense friendship to be satisfied that I am getting queerness presented to me on screen. Having said that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable of me to ask for a mutually consensual kiss. Hell, even a mutually enjoyable one would do. But that is denied to us. Yes, the film is set in the conservative Taiwan of 1987, but it was made in 2020. Can I please just have one moment of unambiguously queer joy?
After the aforementioned shower scene, the boys spend the rest of the film on a comedown from this journey. The narrative, the acting and the cinematography all play out as if the two of them are or had at some point been in love, but that is something that I never felt I saw. The romance is non-existent, so the story has no backbone.
In one late scene, A-Han calls Birdy from a phone box in the rain and plays his walkman into the speaker as they both cry (very 80s). The emotion is beautiful, even well-acted, but where did it come from? It feels like a scene from a different movie. It feels unearned.
Overall, the cinematography is stunning. The soundtrack is evocative of the era and emotional. The acting is believable and even provocative. But the bottom line is that I didn’t care. I didn’t care because the film didn’t make me care. Beautiful shots, use of colour, symbolism, camera angles, music: they were all wasted, because I was not invested.
The film ends with a flash-forward as A-Han and Birdy meet again as adults in Quebec (I guess it was partially funded by Canada?). A previously explored motif of flowing water returns dramatically as A-Han visits a waterfall. The film plays with distortion and mixing of time in its final sequence as they mourn a lost past together; but what past did they have to lose?
Your Name Engraved Herein is one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever watched.
It didn’t make me feel anything, but it acted like it had made me feel everything.