‘Your Name Engraved Herein’: Forbidden love in 1980s Taiwan

Society & Culture

The award-winning film "Your Name Engraved Herein" was Taiwan's highest grossing domestic production of 2020, the first gay-themed film to earn that distinction.

In May 2019, Taiwan made history when it became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. The island has earned a reputation for its tolerance and friendliness to the LGBT community, with Taipei’s annual pride parade, Taiwan Pride, attracting 130,000 people last year. In the world of film, Taiwanese filmmakers have been similarly open to LGBT themes. Directors like Yu Kan-Ping (虞戡平 Yú Kānpíng) and Ang Lee (李安 Lǐ Ān) notably featured gay characters in their work decades ago, but they were exceptions during a time when Taiwan was more conservative. In the last few years, as Taiwan has changed its stance, there have been several popular LGBT dramas like Dear Ex (谁先爱上他的 shéi xiān ài shàng tā de) and Dear Tenant (亲爱的房客 qīn’ài de fángkè).

But the cream of the crop has been the gay love story Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字 kè zài nǐ xīndǐ de míngzì), which was Taiwan’s highest-grossing locally-produced film of 2020.

Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu’s historical romance serves as a reminder that Taiwan wasn’t always so progressive. During the period of martial law, homosexuality wasn’t illegal, but it was very much taboo. Your Name Engraved Herein begins in 1987, right as president Chiang Ching-kuo (蒋经国 Jiǎng Jīngguó) announced the end of this era. Against this backdrop, as the country shakes off authoritarian rule, Catholic teenager A-han (Edward Chen 陈昊森 Chén Hàosēn) falls in love with his classmate Birdy (Jing-Hua Tseng 曾敬骅 Céng Jìnghuá). Given the times, A-han has to repress his feelings. Homophobia is rampant, represented by his own group of friends who bully and torment another boy for being gay.

Birdy is the only one to stick up for the boy during a brutal beating. He’s goofy and easygoing, but brave and rebellious, qualities that attract the reserved A-han. The boys find they have a lot in common, including a love for music. During a trip to the capital, the pair take part in the national mourning of President Chiang, who died not long after martial law was declared over. The boys bond over their trip, and A-han almost sneaks a kiss, but they never admit their feelings for one another. As A-han agonizes over being unable to express his love, their Catholic high school begins to admit female students. To his friend’s hurt and anger, Birdy dates Banban, a girl with an equally independent spirit.

Jealous, A-han tries to be more open with Birdy, sparking a fight, separation, and moment of self-discovery. For most of its running time, Your Name Engraved Herein is related over flashbacks. A-han’s story is a confession, told to his French-Canadian priest and music teacher, Father Oliver (Fabio Grangeon). The movie could have done well without this hackneyed structure, which only slows down the narrative. Father Oliver’s mentorship to A-han really never comes across as deep as the film claims it to be. This stereotypically cool teacher smokes pot, tells his students to live for the moment, and possesses a twist to his character that’s too contrived to take seriously. The rest of the supporting cast, including Banban, don’t offer much to warrant our attention.

Fortunately, the same can’t be said about A-han and Birdy. Their relationship unfolds naturally, with Chen and Tseng’s acting giving the pair a believable chemistry. It’s fun to follow the couple as they goof around on a scooter, swipe movie posters, and sabotage a military singing competition. There’s a great scene at a beach in Penghu that conveys the couple’s more serious side, of the passion weighed down by the fear and sorrow of social expectations. After skinny-dipping, A-han and Birdy lay on the sand and kiss. The tender moment cuts away here, leaving us to wonder whether they couldn’t dare to go further in a society that forbids their love.

There’s an irony the movie notes that, as Taiwan became free, gays were still trapped in the old regime’s stifled mores and values. While the story isn’t entirely original, the setting is definitely interesting. Director Liu and his team do a great job of bringing this period to life, especially with their reconstruction of the public mourning for President Chiang. In an outburst of hysteria, grieved citizens wave flags and cry like banshees, while A-han and Birdy recite prayers and wish for the late president’s success in heaven. Are they genuinely sad, or secretly relieved? During the same episode, the boys run into Chi Chia-wei, a real-life gay rights activist who scandalized the Kuomintang authorities for being openly gay and advocating for LGBT rights.

For a movie where music is so integral to the lives of its main characters, the soundtrack is also appropriately great. It mixes up a few classic ’80s tunes, a gloomy jazz score, and a touching theme song that provides the movie’s title. In the film, it’s presented as something that A-han and Birdy sing to one another, vowing, “I’ve decided to love, only one for the rest of my life.”