Going into an LGBTQ romance there are two things you can usually take for granted. First, the creator's obsession with shame and denial that have been, time and again, forcefully associated with the community. This is not to say that I disregard the great struggle that the community has long since faced but I just want to point out the stereotyping of repressive and self-loathing behavior. Second, a crowd of 'normal' people who are ready to bully the protagonist for not fitting in. Again, as much as this has sadly been the reality, it is a trope that has been overused, to put it nicely. These experiences – while being true – cannot and should not be the only representation afforded to the community.
Call Me By Your Name (2017) deserved its success because on top of a brilliantly told story it was also able to do away with these two main tropes. Personally, as much as I enjoyed the sweet summer romance of the film, the ending of the film is what made me love it. The father's concern for his son's heartbreak rather than the gender or age of the person who received his son's affection almost seemed revolutionary. "You had a beautiful friendship, maybe more than friendship, and I envy you," and with that one speech, the movie stopped being a love story between two men and became just a love story. Watching the final few minutes of Elio crying was like staring into a mirror. I knew that feeling all too well, the nose that keeps getting redder as you try to hold your tears and the whimpers that you silence in yourself to avoid attention. Whom he loved did not matter as much as how he had loved.
Watching Your Name Engraved Herein was like watching an extended version of those two scenes. Set in an all-boys Catholic school in a newly free 1987 Taiwan, it is the story of Chang Jia-han (a vulnerably honest performance by Edward Chen), a friendly and well-liked student whose life is changed when Wang Po Te "Birdy" (Jing-Hua Tseng), a charismatic and rebellious student, joins the school. The two share long glances across the room and hide their complicated feelings under the façade of brotherly bonding. Inspired by the school priest's (Fabio Grangeon) words ('live in the moment'), Jia-han decides to give his feeling a chance. But the introduction of co-schooling and female students threaten to pull Birdy away from him. I have to admit straight away that Your Name Engraved Herein is not a perfect film: there are flaws with its pacing, and other than the two boys and the school priests the characters come across as clichéd. But we all have those movies that are about more than technical perfection; some movies feel so personal, so private, that frivolous things like flaws cannot dent their impression on your soul. As the film unfolds you start to forgive its shortcomings and then you forgive the older version of yourself that the movie reminds you of.
From its synopsis, the film sounds like the conventional affair that I mentioned above. The time period it is set in provides it with a homophobic environment and Birdy's silly courageous acts keep making him a prime target for bullying (sometimes even by the administration). The first thirty minutes of the film do little to convince you otherwise, but stick with it and you will discover that the director, Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu, is using the setting to denounce its power over Jia-han's identity. The setting establishes the constraints of his expression but never of his feelings. The first surprise comes when Birdy, the character you assume would be the one to take charge, ends up being the reluctant one. Birdy's all too well-represented struggles are not what Liu wants us to be concerned with. This is Jia-han's story and we are too busy fighting his battles with him.
After the initial confusion Jia-han moves on to accepting his love pretty smoothly and with the acceptance of his feelings he moves onto the painful path of first love. This is when the true beauty of the film reveals itself. Birdy's rejection, shame and coldness might stem from something very unique to the queer experience but Jia-han's love, desire and pain are universal. The external conflict, such as the violent bullies and the culturally conservative parents, becomes noticeably inconsequential; the agony, much like the love, seems vital.
The movie proves this by allowing the two characters to have their most intimate moments in the same space where they first witnessed harassment. And it proves it some more by having the coming-out scene climax without focussing at all on the parents. The pure affection of Jia-han's love is untouched by the details of Catholic schooling and political circumstances, and so is his longing. The only person afforded the liberty to react to their love is the priest, whose own life has been a self-imposed punishment for being gay. The confrontation between him and Jia-han might feel like the bubble bursting and circumstances overpowering feelings, religion overwhelming love but in reality, it's the opposite. Father Oliver's arguments are put down not by fierce speeches on equality and rights but by irrational passion and love. "Don't all homosexuals deserve to go to hell? Maybe more people will understand me in hell." Jia-Han is too distracted with his own feelings to justify right and wrong, and Liu permits him to experience them without the weight of context. By refusing to apologise for or water down the individual selfishness and short-sighted devotion of Jia-han and Birdy's love story he makes the movie not about gay boys but about boys who happen to be gay.
The phone booth scene which features the award-winning theme song is a culmination of Liu's commitment. The lyrics shared between the two define the tragedy of first love, unsaid words, undefined gestures, inexplicable fear and growing up/apart. The much-debated ending of the film, which takes us into the characters' forties, is in my opinion fitting as it further underlines the blurriness of backdrops and motivations, and the imperishable nature of firsts. The world around Birdy and Jia-han changed but their feelings never did. Your Name Engraved Herein quietly argues that the discrimination and pain queer people have faced historically cannot be erased or neglected from their narrative but, at the same time, these facets cannot come to define their very individual and unique experience of love, loss, and growing up.