Two young men share a forbidden romance in Your Name Engraved Herein, the latest in a string of queer films emerging from the Chinese-speaking world. While LGBTIQ cinema has been evident in the region for many years, including a range of world-class dramas and comedies, the scene feels particularly energised of late. This new Taiwanese drama from director Patrick Liu Kuang-hui seems the most accomplished film of its type in years. It is worth celebrating not simply as a great film of its type, but as a great film generally. This very much could be the best film I have seen from this year.
In 1987, and as the Republic of China emerges from decades-long martial law, Catholic high schooler Jia-han (Edward Chen) begins to fall of new classmate Birdy (Tseng Jing-hua). With the pressures of school, society, family, and homophobia, their budding relationship may be doomed to fail.
There is an earnest quality to Your Name Engraved Herein. It boasts a sort of gushing emotional purity. To call it sentimental would be to do it a deep disservice – not that there’s anything inherently wrong with sentimentality – and to ignore how cleanly and vividly Liu captures a sense of young love. Jia-han is not simply attracted to Birdy, he positively burns with the sort of exaggerated blind passion one typically sees in adolescents. This is one of the most perfectly captured senses of young love I can remember seeing. At the same time the film does not present an overly familiar ‘coming out’ narrative. The Taiwan of the late 1980s may have been emerging from a long period of military rule, but still retained a strong conservative base for some time. While homosexuality was technically never illegal there, neither was it widely accepted. With a Catholic high school compounding the risks for the two boys to openly declare their love – not to mention their own inner guilt – their romance becomes near-unspoken and emotionally fraught. Much in the film goes unsaid, with gaps left for the viewer to surmise the turmoil and fears Jia-han and Birdy experience.
Chen and Tseng perform an outstanding and authentic intimacy in their leading roles. To call it erotic would be to simplify it to a purely sexual level, and the emotional longing and need they display transcends such simplicity. When the film’s narrative leads the characters into archetypal situations and crises, it is the acting that allows Liu to avoid stereotypes. Events may occasionally be easy to predict, but the actors make it feel painfully real. The historical background of the film provides a great amount of texture and detail too; Liu has captured the time period exceptionally well, particularly during a brief trip to performatively mourn the dead President Chiang.
Your Name Engraved Herein is gentle, sensitively played, and emotionally powerful. It captures life and love at its most intimate. It is simply a tremendous drama, whether you are Taiwanese or not, gay or straight. This one really hit a particular nerve. It made me sit up and pay attention.