Dear Ex follows three people, all linked to one another because of a fourth person who dies before the film begins. Adolescent Song Chengxi (Joseph Huang) loses his father Song Zhengyuan (Spark Chen of band Quarterback) to cancer, but instead of actively mourning him, Chengxi finds himself caught in a feud between his widowed mother Liu Sanlian (Hsieh Ying-xuan) and his father’s gay lover Jay (TV star Roy Chiu). Before his death, Zhengyuan listed Jay as his insurance beneficiary, which enraged Sanlian, making her even more of an overbearing nag than she previously was. Fed up, Chengxi moves out and into Jay’s unsightly flat. Already at odds over love and money, the trio seems poised for further conflict.
Conflict does arrive, but so does a path to potential connection and reconciliation. Sanlian calls Jay a ‘manstress’ to mock his homosexuality and his third party status, but Zhengyuan actually referred to Jay as his ‘husband’ during his last days. The idea that Jay is the husband makes Sanlian something like a ‘mistress’, which becomes a taunt that Jay uses to bait and further anger Sanlian. Chengxi is more at odds with his mother than Jay, but he does wonder if Jay is a bad person. After all, this man helped to break up his parents, so he must be bad, right? But through the time Chengxi spends with Jay, and with the help of a few flashbacks and one painful plot twist, the depth of Jay’s love for his father is slowly revealed.
As Jay is revealed, so is Sanlian. Originally willing go to great lengths to hurt Jay, Sanlian starts to change her tune when she learns more about Jay and his life. Dear Ex presents its characters as both perpetrators and victims, whose flaws can mask their capacities for good. They can be mean and disagreeable, but also kind and decent when given the chance. Human beings are driven by more than selfishness, identity or wealth, and judging them without seeing the full picture does everyone a disservice. This is a familiar message, and yet it’s become somewhat of an underappreciated one. With people in real life becoming more divided every day, shared humanity is now something that we need reminding of.
Co-director Mag Hsu and screenwriter Lu Shih-yuan are acclaimed for their television work, and Dear Ex does possess superficial similarities to a TV drama. The web of character connections is very soap opera-ish, and the plot and story devices are nothing new. Also, the script does get a little mawkish when it reaches its end. Overall, however, the film contains enough surprise and nuance to make its common ideas take flight. Mag Hsu and co-director Hsu Chih-yen develop their story and characters in a relatively restrained manner while tempering the pathos with a sharp, subtle sense of humor. Fittingly, a movie about multi-faceted characters has many facets of its own.
The range of explored emotions allows the actors more room to work. Hsieh Ying-xuan is impressive as Liu Sanlian, whose self-righteousness covers her insecurities. George Huang is fine as the least dynamic but perhaps most important “ex” of Song Zhengyuan, who’s played disarmingly by Spark Chen. Roy Chiu gets the range-busting role; previously a TV idol, Chiu plays the charismatic, crucial heart of the film, and he performs remarkably. One of the joys of watching international cinema is seeing how different cultures present common human experiences. The death of a loved one, the breakup of a marriage, the formation of an identity – these can happen to anyone, anywhere. Dear Ex is from the Far East and features many nuances and rhythms of Taiwan life, but ultimately it’s a universal tale of familiar emotion and noble humanist ideals.
Mag Hsu (b. 1966) is a writer and theater director, whose television scripts have frequently been nominated for awards. Hsu’s writing is so popular that it has appeal across Asia: her TV dramas were purchased for potential remake in Korea, while her novel was adapted into a Japanese comic and television series. Among her most popular television works are Mars (2004), Silence (2005) and In Time with You (2011). After directing two television series, Hsu made the leap to feature films with Dear Ex, co-directing alongside popular music video director Chih-yen Hsu.
2018 – Dear Ex
Hsu Chih-yen (b. 1985) is a filmmaker known for his creativity. After graduating from university, Hsu turned heads with his music videos, including many for artists from legendary hip-hop label KAO! including Miss Ko, DJ Didilong and Soft Lipa. After becoming one of the most sought-after music video directors in Taiwan, Hsu partnered with screenwriter Mag Hsu, blending his creativity and visual sense with her skill with story and actors. Dear Ex is the pair’s co-directorial feature-length debut.
2018 – Dear Ex