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'Dear Ex': A Man Dies, Leaving Behind A Wife, A Son And A Secret Gay Lover

Jay (Roy Chiu) and Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hsieh) have at least one thing in common in <em>Dear Ex</em>.
Jay (Roy Chiu) and Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hsieh) have at least one thing in common in Dear Ex.

Domestic dramas have to walk a fine line between sweetness and pathos, and the shaggy-yet-lovable new film Dear Ex succeeds at this balance more than others. The Taiwanese heartstring-tugger, now available on Netflix after only being acquired by the service a week ago, circles around three complicated, hard-to-love characters, allowing their complexities to cloud their better natures. As in last year's lovely Israeli drama The Cakemaker, the film links these figures via a closeted, recently deceased family man: a specter of authenticity cloaked in secrecy, who forces a reckoning for the loved ones he left behind.

The film opens with 13-year-old Chengxi (Joseph Huang) claiming he always knew his dad was gay. It has been three months since his professor father's death from cancer, and Chengxi learns he's been written out of his insurance policy. His prone-to-hysterics mother Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hsieh) knows the truth: that her deceased husband Zhangyuan secretly named his longtime male lover as his benefactor, but that the claim can't go through unless she signs off on it. So Sanlian drags Chengxi along to the mystery man's ramshackle apartment, hoping to spur a confrontation that will somehow put the lid back on the wreckage of their lives.

The first third of Dear Ex is told from Chengxi's perspective, and it's the strongest chunk of the film by far: a strange blend of sullen teen angst and the shock of an uncovered secret. The kid is utterly fascinated by his father's lover Jay, a thirtysomething community theater director who can be furious one minute and tender the next. (He's played by a terrific Roy Chiu, whose raw, prickly performance has no trace of the mincing-younger-gay-lover onscreen stereotype.) To escape his mother's needling, Chengxi moves himself into Jay's life without asking permission, and the two develop a wary bond as they putter through the city on Jay's moped, trying to figure out what they mean to each other. Writer-director Mag Hsu and her co-director Chih-Yen Hsu stage these scenes in bright, brilliant hues, with long shots of the characters maneuvering around each other in hallways that bring to mind some of the early work of pioneering Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang.

As the film broadens in scope, incorporating flashbacks and new dynamics like Jay's traditionalist mother, it also shifts perspective: first to Sanlian, and then to Jay. But along the way, it loses the spark that came with a teenager's incomplete-yet-restless worldview, instead entering a world of full-bore melodrama. Sanlian's storyline, in particular, feels retrograde, both in her views on gay men and in her cartoonish attempts to keep a handle on her son by any means necessary – including an obsession with sending him off to college in Canada.

Jay is the one character who defies easy categorization, because even through his slovenly nature and clear distrust of this family intrusion, his genuine devotion to the man he loved shines through. His flashback scenes with Zhangyuan (Spark Chen) are affectionate and sad, particularly when the two men discuss why they must keep their affair a secret to their families. "Not letting them be sad or worried is our responsibility," Zhangyuan says.

A nice bit of linguistic detail: Though Sanlian tries to emasculate Jay by calling him a "mistress," we quickly learn Zhangyuan in fact called him "hubby"... prompting Chengxi to instead refer to his mother as the true "mistress." Identities shift like this throughout the story, as the three leads develop newfound compassion for each other despite their initial reservations. (As is required by law with every teen movie these days, some of this development must come with onscreen notebook doodles and scribbles to illustrate obvious points.)

Taiwan is often recognized as the most LGBT-friendly region in Asia, making the existence and wide availability of films like Dear Ex a welcome cultural development. Considering the U.S.'s own mainstream movie industry has been remarkably slow to tell similar stories without patronizing characters like Jay, perhaps American filmmakers could learn something here, as well. The film may pale in comparison to The Cakemaker, which told its story with more nuance and sensory detail. ButDear Ex's narrative hiccups and tonal missteps seem less blaring by the time it enters its affecting homestretch, which involves Jay taking on large amounts of debt to stage a revival of a play with great emotional significance. Love in this movie is expressed in odd ways, but it is still genuine.

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