“Between a mistress and a male lover, who do you think would win?”
In their 2018 Taiwanese romance/comedy-drama film Dear Ex (Chinese: 誰先愛上他的, which literally translates to “Who Started Loving Him First”), co-directors Mag Hsu and Hsu Chih-yen wanted to present a “steamy, messy” Taipei in July, portrayed in all its humbling authenticity. In a conversation with the Bright Lights Film Journal, they stress that they wanted to capture beauty without an aesthetic, allowing the clammy landscape to convey the passions running wild in the film.
Following the death of her estranged husband, Liu San-lian (Hsieh Ying-Hsuan) is appalled to discover that her teenage son, Song Cheng-xi (Joseph Huang), is no longer his father’s (Spark Chen) insurance beneficiary. Suspecting Jay (Roy Chin), her husband’s lover, of superseding her son, Liu San-lian starts a bitter feud to retrieve the money that will allow her son to pursue an education abroad. However, in an effort to escape the clutches of his overbearing mother, Song Cheng-xi moves in with Jay, much to everyone’s chagrin. But as he gets to know the man he was abandoned for, Song Cheng-xi struggles to stay biased.
The story is narrated by Song Cheng-xi, and through his cruel verdicts and childish vehemence, we are allowed a glimpse into the exasperated state in which he tries to decipher who truly deserves the insurance money. Above all, he wants to decode the mystery of his fatherless life by trying to understand who was the true mistress, and who the rightful partner.
It’s no surprise then that his mother is both the most infuriating and memorable element of the story. While her constant screeching unnerves everyone around her, it’s only when we begin to experience her bitter disillusionment with love that we start to nurture a sprouting seed of compassion for her. In the same manner, it’s only when the spotlight shifts to Jay that we perceive the depths of his character.
The timid reveal of both Liu San-lian and Jay’s history with their shared lover bends the structure of every emotion out of shape, providing the expected doses of betrayal, sorrow and heartbreak, but never from an obvious source. By dabbing into these vivid passions, what the film achieves is a canvas dripping with longing; for a lost loved one, a family, a lover, happiness.
Much like the fun animation layered over certain scenes to lighten the story with Song Cheng-xi’s imaginative mind, Dear Ex utilizes Lin Chih-peng’s dreamlike cinematography to reach the liminal space between living and mourning. With the light shifting from hellish red to a congealing yellow, the characters’ dizzy state of mind is shared with us through the screen. And in this tangible intimacy something truly spectacular occurs.
The present-day communication that takes place between Jay and his lover brings to mind Klass’ continuing bonds theory, according to which relationships between people and their deceased loved ones can be described as interactive, even though the other person is physically absent. In an illusory manner, through the use of the intoxicating shades of wine staining the walls of Jay’s apartment, that supple expression of longing is bared for the shocked Song Cheng-xi to witness.
The wispy veil separating reality from its parallel states is never addressed, allowing us to validate the truth of this shared intimacy. These moments, just as the memories that come pouring out in the second half of the film, possess all the tenderness of a finger tracing the puckered skin around a fresh wound. Raw and oversensitive, these glimpses into Jay and Liu San-lian’s agony, though different in nature, create everlasting impressions.
It can be said that Dear Ex embraces human nature quite greedily. As a result, what we see beyond the fickle layer of grief is a selfishness so dense that it drags its victims to unimaginable pits. It also takes on many forms. The first is more obvious, as it partains to the proprietary way in which we hog the memory of a lost loved one, taking away from others’ pain. Liu San-lian clings to her misery almost desperately, choosing to degrade Jay by limiting his existence to that of a mere “pervert”. Her cruelty is augmented by Hsieh Ying-Hsuan’s faithful portrayal of her character, inspiring both repulsion and wonder.
The second instant of selfishness is less obvious, but just as detrimental. What is stressed in the dialogue, and indeed critized for its dominating presence in society, is the notion that we must take on the responsibility of alleviating others’ sadness. This is taken to the extreme by both Jay and his lover, who open up a fissure in reality by concealing parts of themselves to appear one-dimensional to others. As we see in the film, this has tragic consequences for those closest to them, and gives rise to the vengeful beast that lives inside Liu San-lian.
While the first half of the film owes its allure to the sheer novelty and chaos of the presented events, the second half swings an unexpected punch, cracking a few ribs with a rueful crunch. In fact, it’s shocking how subdued Dear Ex‘s true emotional mastery is, leaping out of nowhere to unmask the characters we thought we understood and shed light on unfamiliar features.
Very few filmmakers can cradle tragedy in their arms and nurture it into something profound and tender, but the Asian film industry is known for its inherent understanding of human emotion. It’s no wonder then that by the time the credits that rolling, we feel as though our heartstrings have been fondled and tugged so hard that internal bleeding seems unavoidable. In fact, it’s the unexpected twist that evolves into an ongoing spiral that unearths the film’s exquisite core.
To convey Dear Ex‘s spirit, perhaps it’s best to fall on Muxen‘s description of a family: “a set of intimately connected people, who are mutually influential on each other in some way, and whose relationships evolve over time interactively with each other…with past, present and anticipated future contexts”.