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.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
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