Over the last couple of years, it’s been noticeable that the Asian territory that’s actually putting out the most consistently interesting cinema is actually Taiwan. So that, coupled with a starring role for Gwei Lun-mei (always popular here at ThingsFallApart) made watching this one a complete no-brainier. Would it however live up to expectations, or merely flatter to deceive?
“Girlfriend * Boyfriend” is a tale set over 4 distinct time periods, telling both the societal changes in Taiwan during the last 40 or so years, along with the relationship between childhood school friends Mabel (Gwei Lun-mei), Liam (Joseph Chang) and Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan). Things is, they are much more than just friends, Mabel has a huge crush on the shy Liam. Thing is, Liam is just mad about Aaron. And Aaron of course is crazy about Mabel.
The film is bookended by the present day, where a goateed Liam is looking after a couple of rebellious teenage girls, who are quite insistent on calling him their Father, but the authorities judge his relationship more as an older brother. We then slip back to 1985 Taiwan, with the 3 becoming close school friends under the restrictions of Martial Law. The boys are becoming politicised during this period, but Mabel is more of a playful presence, albeit balancing making goo-goo eyes at Liam, whilst struggling with a Mother who is maybe lacking in morals. Realising Liam is just not interested in her, she settles for the adoration of Aaron. We then move forward to 1990, and whilst Martial Law has been lifted, the now college-age boys are still heavily involved with the student uprisings. To be more accurate, Aaron very much is, although his approach seems to be utterly ignorant of how he might be hurting other people in his life. This includes long distance girlfriend Mabel, and seriously-struggling-with-his-homosexuality Liam. It all comes to a head during one alcohol soaked party. Which leads us to 1997, where we catch up with the gang. Liam is estranged from the other two after that night, and is involved in a destructive affair with a married man. Aaron is married with children (though the marriage appears to be more for his career than for love), but is engaging in an affair with Mabel. Mabel is unmarried, but is now pregnant with Aaron’s child, and is also harbouring another secret. It’s clear that we are now on a path that is going to lead us to 2012, and all our cast are not going to make it there with us.
This one is 2/3’s great, and 1/3 disappointing. The 1985 and 1990 segments are beautifully shot and acted. Certainly evoking the feel of ‘You Are The Apple Of My Eye’, but with a more sweeping and societal message going on in the background. Gwei Lun-mei is simply adorable, especially as she seems to eschew swathes of makeup for most of the film. As always she creates a real and empathetic character. Joseph Chang is even better, Taiwanese cinema is awash with its troubled gay teens, and this one is as good as any. Chang plays the role with a simple ease of character (making him likeable), a hidden streak of self hate, and in the end, the only character we can really understand the true journey of. It’s no accident that there are plenty of other gay characters in the film, who survive and thrive, whereas Liam is completely different.
Sadly, the 1997 segment disappoints. Somewhere our characters just got less interesting, their own struggles having no background movement to compare and contrast against. In fact, you could almost suggest that the film is suggesting that people only really operate at their best when railing against restrictions and injustice. Once the restrictions of Taiwanese politics are removed, and all the freedoms are given, everyone becomes boring and self obsessed. On the other hand, 1997 does give us a superb moment when Mabel realises that Aaron will never properly be part if her life, even though they are at the airport planning on running away together.
Rhydian Vaughan does what he can with Aaron, but he is almost always the outsider of the three – there is no real relationship between him and the other two, other than as the second best option, or as an unrequited fantasy. And therefore to the audience, he comes across as an annoying and selfish prig.
For me, there is a huge amount to enjoy in the film, but it certainly is not the film I suspect it half wants to be, I.e. ‘You Are The Apple Of My Eye’. And whilst is has two really strong performances, and a compelling background, yet it lacks humour and charm. It’s terribly well made, but the fact it simply falls apart in the final 40 or so minutes has to count against it. Also, I can’t help feeling I misunderstood something about Mabel’s pregnancy, which I’m not going to go into here, as I really don’t want to spoil too much. However, whilst there are better straight and gay coming of age movies available from Taiwan, and this one is not going to change anyone’s life, Chang and Gwei make this far from a complete fail, so lets be charitable and call it Recommended.