Taiwan is often thought to be the most socially liberal of Asian nations and was the first to legalise same sex marriage in 2019, but a little over 30 years ago things were very different. Many thought that the lifting of martial law which had been in place for 38 years would usher in a new era of freedom only to discover that society is slow to change and despite a gradual opening up the old prejudices still remain. So it is for A-han, the hero of Liu Kuang-hui’s Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字, Kè Zài nǐ Xīndǐ de Míngzi) who finds himself struggling to accept his sexuality as young man coming of age in changing times.
In 1987, as martial law is repealed, A-han (Edward Chen) is a student at a Catholic boys boarding school run along military lines. Many things are changing, but the school is much the same, as the principal Dirty Head (Ta Su) makes plain in conducting an impromptu inspection of the boys’ bunks looking for anything untoward. Nevertheless, A-Han and his friends sneak out at night to play in a band and hang out with girls. A-Han’s reticence is put down to shyness, but the reason he’s not much interested is that he’s taken a liking to a rebellious student, Birdy (Wang Shih-shien), only he’s not quite sure how to interpret his feelings or how to come to terms with them.
This is in part because the school itself is extremely homophobic with the boys actively policing suspected homosexuality as a means of homosocial bonding. When the gang are caught sneaking out, band leader Horn (Barry Qu) targets an effeminate boy he accuses of dobbing them in, beating him up in the bathroom little knowing that A-han is hiding in a nearby stall after bringing ointment to Birdy who has also been caned. A-han emerges from the stalls after Horn hears a noise and is encouraged to join in the fun, handed a baseball bat and asked to participate in a literal act of queer bashing to prove his manhood. To his shame, A-Han prepares to comply, only to be saved by Birdy who breaks cover to rescue the other boy while casting scornful looks at Horn and the gang but most especially at the hypocritical A-Han.
Taking his nickname from the Alan Parker film, Birdy may indeed be as “wild” as his namesake, but his rebelliousness has its limits and perhaps masks an internalised sense of shame. Nevertheless, he connects with the conflicted A-Han and the boys generate an intense friendship that of course has tension at its centre. A trip to Taipei to mourn the death of the president brings them closer, but also makes them feel ashamed as they witness a protester holding up a sign to the effect that homosexuality is not a disease and marriage is a human right being carted off by plain clothes police while the uniformed kind lurk in the shadows behind. Martial law may be over, but not everyone is free. As A-Han grows bolder, Birdy finds himself travelling in the opposite direction, dating a rebellious female student, Banban (Mimi Shao), as a kind of beard in the frustrated hope that he may “save” A-Han from his homosexuality by denying their feelings before they can fully develop.
The central irony is that because of the changes to the educational system the high school is now required to take female pupils and the hardline Catholic, militarist teachers are paranoid about “misbehaviour”, even putting up a chainlink fence to divide the girls from the boys. Romance is forbidden even for heterosexual couples, and homosexuality unthinkable. A-Han finds himself trying to talk to his priest, Father Oliver (Fabio Grangeon), who would like to be more sympathetic but cannot offer him much by the way of advice. Later we discover that Father Oliver left his native Montreal to escape religious oppression and joined the priesthood to mask his own homosexuality, finally leaving the Church to live a more authentic life only many years later when such things were more acceptable. 30 years on A-han travels to a much changed Montreal where he sees lesbians dancing happily in bars and men kissing in the street with no one batting much of an eyelid. He reflects on all that’s changed and all the wasted time he and others like him were forced to endure hiding who they were, living in a world without love. A melancholy lament for the lost opportunities of a repressive society, Your Name Engraved Herein ends on a note of hope in which first love can blossom once again in a less restrictive world where all are free to love without shame.
Original Trailers (English subtitles)