Dr John Wei is a lecturer in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Otago. For Asia Media Centre, he discusses the social impact of the Netflix film Your Name Engraved Herein.
Released in September 2020, Your Name Engraved Herein has become one of the highest-grossing films of the year in the history of Taiwan’s queer cinema. Followed by its release on Netflix, the movie has been brought to a global audience including us here in New Zealand.
Set in the late 1980s, shortly after the lift of Taiwan’s Martial Law (‘White Terror’), the film recounts a bittersweet coming-of-age story of two young boys in a Catholic boarding school, where religious conservatism was conjoined by the transition from the Martial Law-era authoritarianism to post-Martial Law social transformations.
The forbidden love between the two, Ah-Han and Birdy (Bo-De), constantly faces the hostility of abusive teachers and schoolmates, and is also tested by the admission of female students when the school becomes co-educational. The eccentric and stubborn Birdy is often a target of bullying, who initially did not realise his attraction to Ah-Han and then refused to speak about it.
The unspoken and unspeakable desire hence mainly manifests through their struggles and brotherly camaraderie manoeuvring through the brutal school life nested in the wider social change, compressed between personal troubles at school and national traumas such as the death of then-President Chiang Ching-kuo.
While the ‘bromance’ is often articulated through how they watch each other’s back and through their trip to Taipei to mourn Chiang’s death, the mutual attraction has become too apparent for both of them to ignore, yet Birdy is stubbornly reluctant to acknowledge that. Not unlike many other queer films in Asia and the West, their unattainable love results in sorrow and separation.
Based on director Patrick Liu’s adolescent memory and real-life story, the autobiographical film continues the local cinematic tradition through its deep solicitude for youth issues that date back to early classics such as Dust in the Wind (1986) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991).
It also extends the popular queer-youth genre in Taiwan where good-looking young male characters are frequently featured to attract both gay men and women (Patrick Liu himself is known for his ‘idol dramas’), as well as the focus in local cinema on historical traumas as seen in recent popular productions like Detention (2019) set at the peak of the White Terror (and also in a high school).
Another important trend shown in the case of Your Name Engraved Herein is Taiwan’s social progression concerning gay people and equal rights. When Ah-Han and Birdy visited Taipei, they unexpectedly ran into Chi Chia-wei, a prominent local queer activist who has been advocating for gay rights since the 1980s. In the film, Chi Chia-wei was protesting for equal rights and chased up by the police for his activism, in a time when Taiwan’s democratic movements only started to gain traction and the state was softening its social control and civil restrictions. Birdy tried to help Chi Chia-wei when the latter was caught by the police, if he was not stopped by Ah-Han who didn’t want them to get in trouble with the authority.
Here, the film clearly pays homage to Chi Chia-wei and his well-known activism. It was Chi, together with a local gay-rights group, who applied for the Constitutional Interpretation of the marriage law in 2015 that marked the beginning of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage legislation after several failed attempts by local legislators and activists since the 2000s.
In 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled the exclusion of gay marriage in the Civil Code ‘unconstitutional’, which led to Taiwan’s same-sex marriage legislation in 2019 (the first in Asia) and underpinned the resurgence of popular queer films and web series.
The personal narrative in Your Name Engraved Herein pays a due tribute to Chi Chia-wei by showing his arrest (and subsequent imprisonment) in the 1980s, implying it is the sacrifice of the activists like him that has made Taiwan more progressive and inclusive, so today’s queer people no longer face the same kind of ordeal that Ah-Han and Birdy had to go through.
This is why both the film and Taiwan’s social progression have been hailed as encouraging for other countries in Asia (and beyond) where queer people still lack equal rights and face ongoing social stigmas. In Thailand, for example, the cabinet approved same-sex civil unions in 2020, pending the decision of the parliament to become law. In Japan, a District Court has recently ruled that it’s unconstitutional to ban same-sex marriage, the first ruling of its kind in the country. In a recent interview, director Patrick Liu also remarks that viewers in Indonesia and Egypt find his film relevant to the current treatments and experiences of queer people in their countries, where Taiwan’s historical struggle for equal rights is still a lived reality for millions of queer people.
Here, autobiographical queer cinema has connected personal memories and historical traumas with past and present social changes in Taiwan and other Asian locales, marking Taiwan a pioneer in Asia for both the legislation of same-sex marriage and the cultural and commercial importance of queer-youth cinema as an ever-successful genre.
Social change takes time, and queer films like Your Name Engraved Herein have reminded us about both passionate struggles and heart-breaking sacrifice, while keeping us hopeful that Taiwan’s transition may signal the beginning of social progression in other parts of Asia.