Mama Boy (初戀慢半拍, Arvin Chen, 2022)

A diffident young man gets a few lessons in love after falling for a middle-aged madam in Arvin Chen’s charming romantic dramedy, Mama Boy (初戀慢半拍, chūliàn mànbànpāi). The English-language title at least is a kind of pun, the awkward hero both described as a mother’s boy and falling for the mama of a hotel providing sexual services, but also hints at the awkwardness involved in his attempt to assert his independence at the comparatively late age of 30 by choosing to spend time with a mother the polar opposite of his own. 

Xiao-hong’s (Kai Ko) mother Meiling (Yu Tzu-yu) describes him as “shy”, though the mother of one of the girls she attempts to set him up with less charitably brands him “not normal”. Not normal is closer to the way Xiao-hong thinks of himself, wishing his mother would stop with the blind dates knowing that in his awkwardness he ends up making women feel uncomfortable and has no idea how to talk to them. His sleazy cousin/boss at the tropical fish shop where he works, insists on taking him to an exclusive brothel where he is instantly captivated by the middle-aged madam, Sister Lele (Vivian Hsu). Too shy to say anything, he continues returning to the hotel and hiring a sex worker to sit blankly in the room solely for the opportunity of exchanging a few words with her. 

The two of them are in a sense in similar positions, a mother frustrated by a wayward son, and a son frustrated by his possessive mother. Some of Xiao-hong’s attraction at least is maternal in seeking a freer parental hand. Unlike his mother, Lele boosts his confidence by making him believe that he’s alright and girls are going to like him, while taking him to cosy nightspots and teaching him the basics of romance. She meanwhile admires him as an ideal son the polar opposite of her own. Weijie (Fandy Fan) only contacts her to ask for money (his father no longer answers his calls) and seems to be involved in several dodgy get rich quick schemes the latest of which is selling knock off wine while he’s also got himself in trouble with loansharks. 

There is something a little uncomfortable in the contrast presented between the two women, the prim and proper mum Meiling raising a sweet, polite child like Xiao-hong who nevertheless lacks several important life skills because of her overparenting, while the child raised by former sex worker Lele is a no good two bit wise guy. Lele certainly seems to see Xiao-hong as a symbol of her failed maternity believing that his mother must have raised him well while she blames herself for her son’s failings feeling as if she couldn’t give Weijie the attention he deserved because she was a single mother who had to work to support him. 

Meanwhile they are also each lonely, Xiao-hong shy and isolated and Lele spending her nights drinking alone in bars being chatted up by sleazy men. Spending time together they develop a tentative bond of love and affection only to find their connection interrupted by Weijie and Meiling each of whom obviously disapprove. Meiling has a suitor of her own in a retired police academy professor she rejects out of a sense of repressive properness but eventually warms to after feeling she needs police assistance to reclaim her son from Lele realising that he’s stopped picking her up from work in order to give Lele lifts instead. 

Despite the romantic themes, both women are essentially reduced to the maternal through their experiences with good son Xiao-hong, Lele trying to patch things up with the wayward Weijie while Meiling realises that she’s overstepped the mark and and will have to let go a little to let Xiao-hong live his life or risk turning him into a perpetual mother’s boy who’ll be all alone once she’s gone. Xiao-hong meanwhile begins to gain confidence, asserting himself as an individual free of his mother’s control now no longer so diffident in talking to women thanks to the patient ministrations of Lele. With its quirky production design and fairytale atmosphere Chen’s tale of first love delayed is also one of unexpected connection and mutual acceptance that perhaps missteps in effectively negating the relationship at its centre but nevertheless has only sympathy for its lovelorn hero. 


Mama Boy screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Filmagic Pictures Co.

High Flash (引爆點, Chuang Ching-shen, 2018)

High Flash posterThe little guy is often at the mercy of big business, but the conspiracy runs still deeper in Chuang Ching-shen’s high stakes thriller High Flash (引爆點, Yǐnbàodiǎn). Set in the relatively unglamorous world of a small fishing village, High Flash begins with a mysterious death but quickly spirals outwards to ask questions about the connections between industrial conglomerates and the political establishment both local and national. Those who seem keenest to root out corruption may in fact be no less self serving than those who take advantage of it but perhaps there’s nowhere free of greed and selfishness when there are such gains to be made.

The action opens with a fierce protest by the local fishing community towards the large scale Tonglian petrochemical plant which they believe has been polluting their waters, ruining their health and livelihoods. While the newly elected mayor, Chen (Lan Wei-hua), is giving his best at the megaphone, a commotion breaks out when a burning boat collides with protestors and is later found to be harbouring the body of one Ah-hai (Bokeh Kosang / Hsu Yi-Fan) who is assumed to have committed self immolation in protest of the plant’s continued intransigence.

Earnest medical examiner Chou (Chris Wu Kang-Ren) isn’t sure that’s the case. His evidence suggests Ah-hai, who was already terminally ill with liver cancer, did not die of burns or smoke inhalation while his kidneys also exhibited strange florescent spots later identified as copper sulphate. Chou’s findings are music to the ears of jaded prosecutor Jin (Yao Ti-Yi), who also happens to be Chou’s former fiancée. She too is convinced there’s more to this than the elaborate suicide of a man whose life had been ruined by the heartlessness of big business.

Chuang quickly sets up the expected contrast between the scientifically minded Chou who claims to assess only hard evidence without emotional baggage, and the passionate Jin who is desperate to expose the truth at any cost though the romantic drama between the pair never quite ignites even as the past continues to inform their present relationship and the case at hand. Despite his insistence on hyper-rationality, Chou is not is a cold or unfeeling man as he proves by tenderly introducing himself to Ah-hai’s body and asking for his cooperation in investigating why he died, but his rigidity is perhaps to have unexpected consequences despite his best intentions which see him taking a special interest in Ah-hai’s unfortunate wife and son.

Ah-hai’s illness and that of his little boy who is suffering from a brain tumour are not explicitly linked to the illicit activities of Tonglian but the implication is clear. Industrial pollutants have destroyed not only the local fishing industry but with it a community which is now suffering with a large number of serious and unexplained illnesses. Tonglian, as might be assumed, is not particularly bothered, assuming it can rely on friends in high places and a complex web of thuggery and corruption to deal with any more serious opposition. Meanwhile, Ah-hai’s death is already being repurposed for political gain. The village regards him as a hero and a martyr who sacrificed himself in the most painful of ways in order to bring attention to their plight and the evils of Tonglian. None of which, however, is much use to his wife and son who are now unable to claim on his life insurance and are left without an income.

Vested interests exist on both sides – those keen to uphold Ah-hai as a hero and a martyr at the cost of his wife and son, and those keen to minimise the effects of his death in ensuring Tonglian is able to go on doing its (extremely dodgy) business with the same bottom line. While top execs boast about making a killing on the fluctuating company stocks and spending it on yachts, horses, and vintage wine, Ah-hai’s wife and son are left at the mercy of prevailing forces and fearful for their futures. The village might well feel that seeing as Ah-hai is dead anyway making a martyr of him whether he was one or not might be worth it if it helps expose Tonglian’s various transgressions but then again they may have overestimated the extent to which anyone really cares about big business corruption and the complicity of the state.

Nevertheless, in true conspiracy thriller fashion getting too close to the truth can prove dangerous and Chuang perhaps missteps in the case of whom he allows to pay the price, but his anti-corruption messages and warning about the cynical hypocrisy of big business eager to claim it cares about the little guy and his environment are sadly universal, as are his world weary implications regarding the eventual corruption and diminishing efficacy of longterm protests.


High Flash screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 28, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director Chuang Ching-shen & actor Chen Chia-kuei will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)