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.

Leave Me Alone (不想一個人, Fan Yang-chung, 2021)

Lonely souls seek impossible connection in a rapidly disintegrating world in Fan Yang-Chung’s steamy urban drama, Leave Me Alone (不想一個人, bùxiǎng yīgèrén). The title may in its way be misleading, the original Chinese meaning something more like “I don’t want to be alone” hinting at the misdirected longing that informs all of the relationships in play, but is in another way the thing each of them fear – that they are being left behind while everything around them seems to be on the brink of collapse. 

Petty street pimp Loong (Fandy Fan Shao Hsun) literally lives in a disused building that’s about to be torn down, while his side gig involves working with a local gangster to pressure residents of an old-fashioned apartment block to sell up so the land can be redeveloped. Loong has a rather unsentimental, amoral approach to his work in finding the body of an old man and pressing his finger on the documents to make it look like he changed his mind right before died, something which seems all the colder on realising that his own father lives in the building. His gangster boss Brother Chao ominously reminds him that’s something he’ll need to take care of. 

In other ways eager to please, Loong’s involvement with Brother Chao is part of his aspirational desire to live a better life which also in part explains his fascination with beautiful gallery owner Olivia (Christina Mok) who is also in her own way lonely having discovered that she’s carrying the child of her married lover whom she’d believed was ignoring her only to discover the reason he’s not been answering her calls is that he’s in hospital in a coma and unlikely to wake up. Both Loong and and Olivia are repeatedly blocked from getting what they want, she prevented from entering her lover’s hospital room on the orders of his wife and he later rejected from a fancy apartment block by the same set of security guards instructing him to take the back stairs as if reminding him of his status and the class difference between himself and Olivia even if he’s smartened himself up while continuing to exploit other women for his living.

He does perhaps undergo a minor pang of conscience when Olivia tells him not to treat her like one of his sex workers, but later seems to have given up on achieving a more mainstream success after overplaying his hand with Brother Chao and paying a heavy price for his hubris. Olivia meanwhile entertains other men in an attempt to overcome her loneliness, sending each of them away with the excuse that her friend is coming over though of course he isn’t and doesn’t respond to her messages. As she and Loong drift into an affair, Oliva becomes a kind of tourist in his world raising eyebrows at the karaoke bar where the girls entertain Brother Chao’s guys, but Loong is hopelessly out of place in her upperclass society hovering in the background at a swanky party and eventually alienating another guest he felt was belittling him by offering to set him up with one of his girls. While he longs for Olivia as a symbol of the high life he feels is denied to him, so Chin-shah (Wen Chen-ling) his casual squeeze longs for him looking perhaps for protection or uncomfortably for the familial while he largely thinks only of himself. 

In any case, they each live in a world set to disappear. In one of the earliest scenes, Olivia watches as workmen dismantle the current installation in preparation for the next, her own image shattering as a mirror is smashed by a workman’s hammer, while the disused apartments and obsolete housing complexes familiar to Loong must too eventually come down leaving him forever displaced in a rapidly gentrifying city. “You’re too poor and you can’t handle me” Olivia eventually reflects after asking Loong if he’d always be there to take care of her making it plain that they occupy two different worlds while temporarily trapped in the same liminal space by their shared loneliness and a longing for something else that they don’t think they can have. They must try to find a way to move on but are otherwise forced deeper onto the paths they’d already chosen while trapped together bound by their shared yet opposing desires. In Fan’s stratified city of frustrated longing, love may not be so much the cure for loneliness as its ultimate expression. 


Leave Me Alone screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

We Are Champions (下半場, Chang Jung-Chi, 2019)

What is the best way to “win”, team work and camaraderie or authoritarian austerity? Two brothers find themselves on different paths in Chang Jung-Chi’s high school basketball drama We Are Champions (下半場, Xiàbàn Cháng), but in true manly fashion eventually end up repairing their fracturing familial relationships through sporting competition as a healthier substitute for physical violence (though that too is not entirely absent). Who wins and who loses might not be as important as it first seems, but then again perhaps there is more than one way to “win”. 

Close in age, big brother Hsiu-yu (Fandy Fan Shao Hsun) and little brother Tung-hao (Berant Zhu Ting-Dian) live with an aunt and uncle in the backroom behind their seamstressing factory and spend most of their free time playing basketball out in the street with other youngsters. The boys’ mother passed away when they were small and times being what they are, their dad has had to travel to find work and is not able to check in on them very often. The reason the guys play basketball so much is that they hate living with their permanently angry uncle and want to move out, putting the money they make through street games and part time jobs into an escape fund. 

Things begin to change for them when they’re spotted by a basketball coach from a local high school who gives them a few tips and offers them a shot at joining the team. Tung-hao is keen, but Hsiu-yu has given up on his dreams of basketball glory because of a hearing injury that saw him mercilessly bullied on the middle school courts. Tung-hao ends up getting scouted by an elite school, Yuying, but the authoritarian coach flatly tells him that there’s no space for Hsiu-yu because he doesn’t allow disabled people on his team. Tung-hao is conflicted, but ends up joining after fighting with his uncle and storming out of the house. He’s sorry for his brother, but all he wants to do is play basketball so he’s taking his chance. Hsiu-yu is happy for him and wishes him well, eventually taking the sympathetic coach who spotted them at the outdoor court up on his offer to play for decidedly small but scrappy high school team Kuang Cheng. 

Kuang Cheng isn’t perfect, Hsiu-yu still gets bullied because of his hearing aid at least to begin with, but unlike Yuying they run on a principle of solidarity. The coach is a supportive, paternal presence that Hsiu-yu finds particularly useful in the continuing absence of his father and motivates his players through trying to give them the confidence to be all they can be. Over at Yuying, meanwhile, they all wear identical black uniforms, have buzz cuts, and spend all their time drilling with military discipline. The coach has no time for the personal lives of his players, abruptly kicking one guy off the team simply because he was late to practice. Yuying is, to put it bluntly, a bedrock of ruthless authoritarian elitism. They think they’re entitled to win because they’re the best, and they won’t hear any arguments to the contrary. 

These ideological differences continue to place a strain on the brothers’ relationship with Tung-hao remaining conflicted about his decision to leave his brother behind and doubling down on the manly militarism of his coach’s philosophy to make it seem worthwhile. Having not seen him in a long while, Hsiu-yu calls out to his brother across the basketball court but Tung-hao ignores him, eventually answering only after Hsiu-yu returns to let him know that he’s just had a call about a relative being seriously injured and taken to hospital. Tung-hao tells him he’s not interested in family drama because he’s here to practice with his new buddies before crossing the line back towards the other side. 

Despite all of that, however, good brother Hsiu-yu never gives up on family feeling and continues to support Tung-hao in his heart even while they’re rivals on the court. Tung-hao is increasingly conflicted by his coach’s determination to destroy his brother, even using his hearing problems against him, but is eventually healed by Hsiu-yu’s forgiveness even as he prepares to shatter all his dreams. Sometimes you can “win” by being the better man, or by accepting someone’s forgiveness, or just doing your best, and other times you can throw a ball through a hoop all on your own. Victories come in all shapes and sizes, but true champions are the ones who know how to lose with grace and win with magnanimity. 


Originally scheduled as the centrepiece of the suspended Season 10, We Are Champions streams for free in the US on June 12 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online. Viewers in Italy will also be able to catch it streaming as part of this year’s online Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)