The intimate love story, now playing on Netflix, comes over a year after Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage and is set during a less tolerant time in the 1980s.
“I wanted to portray a love story,” says director Patrick Liu, “not strictly an LGBTQ story.” Still, it’s hard to get away from identity politics with his latest film, Your Name Engraved Herein, now playing on Netflix.
The romantic drama follows an intimate relationship between two high school boys. It became the highest-grossing LGBTQ film in Taiwan when it premiered there in September, just over a year after the self-ruled island legalized same-sex marriage.
Critics have compared the film to Call Me By Your Name and Thailand’s I Told the Sunset About You. The difference, though, is that the two lovers are never open about their sexuality. In the end, both still remain in the closet.
(Read more: Coming out to your Chinese parents on a gay cruise)
Liu says he based the story off memories of a childhood crush in high school. One of his producers, Arthur Chu, is a former classmate. “I’m A-Han,” Liu says, referring to the protagonist. Like the character, he, too, fell for a boy at school but couldn’t show it.
Your Name Engraved Herein is not Taiwan’s first LGBTQ-themed movie, but it is the rare film that seeks to realistically depict the struggles of closeted men and women in a conservative society.
Although Taiwan made headlines last year for legalizing the first same-sex marriages in Asia, such a move would have been unthinkable less than a generation ago. Your Name Engraved Herein is set in the late 1980s, a transitional period when Taiwan ended 30-plus years of martial law and began its path toward democracy.
For younger viewers, it’s a reminder of how recent their hard-won gains are.
“To see those historical events examined through a lens of queerness is a lot,” says Jacy Tsing, a 25-year-old Taiwanese-American. “People really forget that Taiwan was under martial law for the longest in the world.” That record was only outstripped when Syria ended its 44 years of martial law in 2011.
(Read more: In pictures: Taiwan’s first mass gay wedding)
Older viewers might recognize the Taiwan portrayed in Your Name Engraved Herein. Liu says many of his peers were excited to see their experiences reflected on the silver screen, even if some of those memories might be painful.
In one scene at a park, A-Han meets an older man who attempts a romantic pursuit. But A-Han swiftly rejects him. Liu says the scene shows the biggest difference between being gay then and now.
“In English it’s called ‘cruising,’” Liu says. Older closeted men would wander parks and other public spaces with the silent understanding that other men would seek them out and spend the night with them. “In Taiwan, it’s called ‘going to work in the park’ and ‘roaming the dark streets,’” Liu explains.
A-Han not only misunderstands the man’s intentions but also realizes he is looking at the kind of future he might have if he continues to embrace his sexuality.
“No one needs to do that anymore,” Liu says. “It’s legal now, and there are dating apps. But in other more conservative areas, people continue to cruise.”
There are other references to the hostility toward homosexuality at the time. In one scene, a group of boys beat up a student for showing signs of “gay behavior.” In another, A-Han and his crush Birdy go on a field trip to Taipei and see an activist holding a sign that reads, “Homosexuality is not a disease.” It’s a nod to Chi Chia-wei, a gay rights activist who was instrumental in Taiwan’s fight for same-sex marriage.
But Liu also shows the winds of change that are slowly permeating Taiwanese society. The all-boys’ school that A-Han and Birdy attend must adapt to a transition to co-education. On their trip to Taipei, they discuss books and music during the era, including the works of Taiwanese author Sanmao, whose work expressed the yearning for openness at the time.
In the end, though, the film is an intimate love story about two boys and their unrequited love.
“A lot of people were debating Birdy on Douban,” the Chinese equivalent of Rotten Tomatoes, Liu says. “They called him a jerk for leading A-Han on. But on the contrary, his actions were because he’s so much deeper in the closet than him.”
Taiwan has come a long way, and Liu hopes his work can resonate with others in Asia.
“My friends in Osaka wanted to go to a screening of the film, but they hesitated because they were afraid of being seen and outed,” Liu says. “Just going to see a gay film is a risk that others might see you and say, ‘They’re gay.’”
He then uses a Chinese word that’s used in LGBTQ circles to refer to each other: tongzhi 同志, or “comrade.”
“Although things are changing, tongzhi across Asia still have to cruise in silence.”