“Your Name Engraved Herein” is a coming out romance set in late 1980s Taiwan, where two boarding school classmates take tentative steps to explain their sexuality in a country that was just emerging from decades of martial law, and where same sex relationships were taboo.
It’s a slow-moving piece covering familiar ground, a movie of timeworn dramatic tropes and seeming universal coming out experiences — bullying, harassment, parental shunning — trotted out once more, this time in a late ’80s Taipei setting.
Edward Chen is Jia-han, newly transferred to a school just as the martial law that was a product of Chiang Kai-Shek has ended with the death of his President and son. The first friend he makes in swim class is the free spirit/rebel Wang Po-te, (Jing-Hua Tseng), who encourages one and all to call him “Birdy.”
He’s a film nut and he identifies with the mentally-ill Vietnam Vet title character of that film, played by Matthew Modine. This Birdy isn’t mad, just impulsive, self-assured and to Jia-han’s surprise, brave.
He’s not stupid enough to join with the pack, which thinks of a gay classmate as “a virus…He’ll force us to be gay, too!”
Jia-han picks up a connection between them, and isn’t sure what to make of it. But when the school’s resident bully Horn (Barry Qu) leads his friends in harassing and pummeling an effeminate student, Jia-han’s instinct is to go-along-to-get-along. But can’t hold Birdy back, who instinctively sticks up for the outsider.
Birdy is the guy who talks back to the military supervisor of the school, who insists the sexes be kept separate and the ring-leader in a little ROTC-styled “military songs” competition revolt.
Yu Ning Chu’s script takes us through the moment when Jia-han starts to figure out he’s just not attracted to girls, at an impromptu horn section late night serenade/make-out sessions with schoolgirls in a local cemetery. Everything points to his deepening love for Birdy.
But as close as they get, Birdy is sending mixed signals. Dude’s got Wham! posters on his wall. But when Birdy takes up with a girl (Lenny Li) when the school goes coed, he makes Jia-han question what he’s putting himself through, the information-please sessions with the gay kid Birdy defends, increasingly heated arguments with his father and the rising risks of school shunning and bullying and expulsion.
Director Kuang-Hui Liu and screenwriter Yu Ning Chu frame all this within a late-school career counseling session with the cool Canadian Catholic priest and band teacher (Fabio Grangeon). He engages in a couch-therapy session with the Jia-han after a bloody fight and tries to give the boy solace amid his crisis of faith and sexuality.
It is a cumbersome framework and contributes to the film’s slack pacing and disjointed structure. The priest plays “Danny Boy” on his stereo as they chat, maybe the corniest and most tone-deaf (He’s FRENCH CANADIAN) touch in the movie.
There’s an epilogue that follows the resolution of that framework that would have played far more gracefully without the many interventions of this long session with the Mandarin-speaking priest from Montreal. We learn that the title is taken from a Chinese song lyric there.
Perhaps the more advanced “Western” attitudes Father Oliver grew up around make him easier to talk to. But it’s the ’80s and he’s Catholic and we see little evidence of that.
There are “Call Me By Your Name” touches to Jia-han’s journey of discovery, an acting-out encounter with a much older man because of Birdy’s girlfriend “betrayal,” and a passionately pubescent shower scene.
Chen has the more repressed, understated role to play and gets across the confusion of having those feelings in that culture in that era must have created. Tseng has the showier part and gives Birdy a confidence that nobody in that school, other than the always-with-his-posse bully, carries with him.
The period-piece setting reminds us that what is now regarded as one of the more sexually progressive and tolerant cultures in Asia wasn’t always that way.
But it’s the sensitivity that distinguishes “Your Name Engraved Herein,” a coming-out story that plays as a sentimental first-love-you-never-get-over romance.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, violence, sex
Cast: Edward Chen, Jing-Hua Tseng, Fabio Grangeon, Lenny Li and Barry Qu.
Credits: Directed by Kuang-Hui Liu, script by Yu Ning Chu. A Sony Pictures/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:58