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.

Grit (鱷魚, Chen Ta-Pu, 2021)

A former gangster just released from prison finds his loyalties conflicted while working for a corrupt local official in Chen Ta-pu’s quirky romantic crime drama, Grit (鱷魚, èyú). According to a not particularly interested policeman, no one really cares about things like loyalty or morality anymore but like the best of noble gangster heroes, Yu Da-Wei (Kai Ko Chen-tung), otherwise known as Croc because of an incomplete tattoo of a dragon on his back, really does yet his nobility only makes him vulnerable to the machinations of those around him even as he does his best to stand up to thuggish intimidation masquerading as local government. 

At 17 years old, Yu was convicted of a gangland murder though it was rumoured at the time that petty gang boss Liu (Lee Kang-sheng) may have orchestrated the hit and set the young man up as a scapegoat promising him riches on release and that the grandfather who raised him would be looked after. Now a local councillor, Liu at least keeps his promise handing over twice the agreed amount of money along with a folder detailing where his grandfather’s ashes have been interred, but is otherwise unsupportive while later reluctantly agreeing to give Yu a job in his office during which he runs in to stubborn farmer Chen (Angelica Lee Sinje) whose father has recently passed away after a drunken accident. Chen has being trying to ring the council for weeks because someone’s cut off the water supply to her rice paddy but no one is willing to help her get it turned back on. Over earnest in his new occupation, Yu throws himself into action but is largely unaware of the vagaries of local politics and the likely reasons behind Miss Chen’s sudden inability to earn her living. 

Chen is quick to denigrate local government, complaining that they always turn up for weddings and funerals but when you really need them they’re nowhere to be found. That’s one reason she’s so surprised by Yu’s genuine attempts to help but conversely disappointed when nothing is really done. For his part, Yu is disappointed too because he really thought they were there to serve the people so he rolls up his sleeves and unblocks the irrigation channel himself but thereafter finds himself on the receiving end of the harassment Chen has been facing for months because she refuses to sell her land to developers. Liu is only motivated to help on discovering that the thugs at Chen’s farm may have been sent by a political rival but thereafter resorts to typical gangster tactics. Rather than try to help Chen, he blackmails his way onto the deal and then tells Yu to do whatever it takes to get her off her land so they can all profit as part of a dodgy real estate scam.  

An old school gangster, Yu is torn between loyalty to his old boss for whom he’s already been to prison and doing the right thing especially as he begins to bond with Chen as she continues to care for him after he is badly injured by thugs. He naively gives Liu opportunities to change, tries to convince Chen her land’s not worth dying for, and searches for another solution but eventually finds himself hamstrung by the contradictions of the world in which he lives where former gangsters are now in legitimate power and the state continues to behave like a low level street gang. It might be tempting to read a wider political message into Chen’s determination to hang on to her land which as her father was fond of saying is the only thing you can’t import as she alone refuses to give in to intimidation asking why it is they’re telling her to leave when there seems to be no good reason while Yu is eventually pushed towards resistance if only in her defence because of the mutual kindness that has arisen between them, two people otherwise alone in the world. 

“We all have our own worth” Liu snarls, but Yu is perhaps beginning to realise his, no longer the naive kid but turning the boss’ weapons back on him willing to sacrifice himself in order to save Chen even if he retains an unrealistic belief that Liu will honour his promises. Quirky in tone and somehow earnest, Chen Ta-pu’s charming crime drama is at once an innocent romance in which a lonely woman and a morally compromised man find love while battling institutional corruption, and a tale of personal redemption as the hero discovers “something more important” than loyalty to an oppressive social system and exploitative mentor.  


Grit screens in Chicago April 10 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Road to Mandalay (再見瓦城, Midi Z, 2016)

再見瓦城前導海報-GokKipling’s Mandalay, as uncomfortable as it seems to us now, is an imperialistic nostalgia trip through the orientalised, “exotic” East. Midi Z adopts a well known line of the poem, The Road to Mandalay (再見瓦城, Zài Jiàn Wǎ Chéng), as an ironic comment on the journey undertaken by the central pair of hopeful migrants crossing from Myanmar into Thailand each for different reasons but both in search of something unavailable to them at home.

Lianqing (Wu Ke-xi) crosses a river on a dingy and is met by a man on a motorbike who takes her to a truck which will take her into Bangkok. Only a second class passenger, Lianqing is about to huddle into a hidden compartment in the vehicle’s boot when a man volunteers to give up his seat in the front so that she can have a more comfortable journey. When they arrive, the man, Guo (Kai Ko), offers to help her find work and gives her his cousin’s phone number so they can keep in touch. Lianqiang is grateful but not particularly interested and tries to fob him off with a jar of shrimp paste as a thank you.

Mostly told through Lianqing’s eyes, her migration story is a difficult one. The friend she’s come to meet, Hua, isn’t even there when she arrives and is in a permanently bad mood after having lost her job due to not having the proper documentation. The other two women in the flat, one of whom, Cai, is also from her village, are currently working in the sex trade – something which they don’t particularly advise Lianqing take up, but finding a job without papers proves near impossible. Lianqiang eventually finds work as a dishwasher in a restaurant which, all things considered, suits her well enough – the work is menial and intensive, but the atmosphere is relaxed, the boss is OK, and she still earns enough to live on and send money home. Guo objects to Lianqing working in such a lowly place and wants her to come to work in a factory with him where the pay is better but Lianqing prefers her independent city life to an oppressive factory-bound existence. Nevertheless when the restaurant is raided she is forced to join Guo’s factory after running out of other options.

Though The Road to Mandalay is often described as a love story, its central romance is as thorny as the protagonists’ liminal status. Guo’s early gesture of self sacrifice looks like altruistic chivalry, but his designs on Lianqing are obvious from the outset. His big brotherly protection soon veers off into a kind of patronising paternalism before developing into something more worryingly possessive. Despite appearing to avoid seeming overbearing, Guo’s personal insecurities eventually lead him into the worst kind of betrayal when he tries to stop Lianqing from acquiring her work papers in the belief that they will take her away from him.

Guo’s philosophies are all short-term. He wants to earn as much money as possible with the idea of eventually going back to Myanmar and perhaps opening a shop selling imported Chinese clothing. Lianqing’s thinking couldn’t be more different. Her plans are longterm. She wants her work permit to get a proper, middle-class city job so she can have a better quality of life. After getting her work permit she wants a Thai passport which will allow her to move on again, perhaps to Taiwan, to further improve her living standards and future prospects. Guo wants Lianqing and he wants her to come home with him. He is not prepared to follow her and knows that she does not envisage the same kind of future as he does. Prompted by Lianqing’s talk of going to Taiwan, Guo asks her if she’s ever thought about getting married. Sensing his intention, Lianqing’s answer is a flat no. It’s too soon, she wants something more out of life than being someone’s wife.

Thailand, however, is not particularly supportive of her dreams. The migrants’ lives are hard. The streets are regularly patrolled at night with police checking IDs and constant crackdowns mean the visa rules are being enforced though bribery is also rife. Migrants present an easy point of exploitation for all as they have no way of protecting themselves and are unable to go to the authorities due to their undocumented status. Lianqing decides to get a permit through the back door, bribing officials through a broker, but the papers she paid a small fortune for are next to worthless and her only other options involve identity theft. At the factory she doesn’t even have an identity as her name is taken away from her and replaced with a number. When another migrant from Myanmar is badly injured in an accident, Lianqing and the others are forced to sign a waver form which absolves the factory of responsibility and declares the matter “settled” with an agreement to pay medical costs but with no further compensation or legal recourse. It’s  no wonder that the common advice swapped between migrants is to leave Thailand as soon as possible for somewhere less hostile to young people with big dreams.

Midi Z’s visual style is broadly naturalistic but slips into surrealism as Lianqing is forced to consider working in the sex trade while Guo impotently throws logs into a furnace with drug fuelled frustration. Lianqing might have been able to escape her economic circumstances, but she can’t escape the net of patriarchy presented by men like Guo who can’t accept her desire for independence and negation of their hopes and dreams which largely rely on her agreeing to conform to their visions rather than her own. Chances of success are slim yet Lianqing refuses to give up on her determination for a better future. For others, however, this dead end life of constant frustration is bound only for tragedy with no hope in sight.


The Road to Mandalay screens at Regent Street Cinema on 26th September before opening in selected cinemas courtesy of Day for Night. Further dates scheduled so far include:

Original trailer (dialogue free)