Reckoning with unlived lives
On the Taiwanese film 'Your Name Engraved Herein'
Warning: this essay contains minor spoilers for Your Name Engraved Herein.
Every time I pass by schools in London or whenever I see school kids in their uniforms, chatting away with friends or tapping their student Oysters in the Underground, my mind wanders to an alternate reality in which my parents (one of whom is British and the other Filipino-Chinese) chose to raise me in England instead. They had considered it after all. Hong Kong, which was then still a British colony, was also on the table. Ultimately, they decided to raise me in the Philippines. It is jarring to think about. I could very easily have lived a whole other life from what I know now had my parents chosen differently. My friends would not be my friends. My world would not be my world. I would have spoken Cantonese. I may not be writing this now.
These are only some of my unlived lives. There are many others, some I think about more than the rest. Some of them are painful to dwell on for too long. But generally, imagining how my life might have turned out had I been born in a different place and at a different time is one of my favourite thought experiments. How would I have fared if I was born in Tudor England? Would I have survived in the Viking Age? How would I have navigated life as a millennial in Hong Kong?
The 2020 Taiwanese film Your Name Engraved Herein, directed by Patrick Kuang-Hui Liu and starring Chen Hao-sen (or Edward Chen) and Tseng Jing-Hua, to me, explores that thought experiment.
A-han (Chen) and Birdy (Tseng) are students at an all-boys Catholic school in 1987 Taiwan. The story is set just after nearly four decades of Martial Law was lifted that year. They become fast friends and eventually develop a deeper, more intimate bond – one that is equally deeply taboo for the place and the time period. This film, a box office hit that became the highest-grossing LGBT film in Taiwan, is a coming-of-age story that cuts across the whole spectrum. It’s a story of self-discovery and identity formation; of first love and sexuality; of developing one’s own moral fibre and gaining a sense of one’s place in society; of understanding justice and truth; and of growing wings as well as a backbone.
When pitching this film to friends, I like to say that while Elio and Oliver were falling in love across the world in Italy (in Call Me By Your Name, the novel, the story is also set in 1987), A-han and Birdy were doing the same in Taiwan, except the politics were a lot more fraught.
Here you’ve got the politics of family, the politics of religion, the politics of heteronormativity, and inevitably the actual politics of the time, all overlapping with one another during a defining period in the lives of the protagonists.
In one telling early scene to swiftly lay down the stakes, students bully a presumably gay student in the bathroom and threaten to use a lighter on his penis. Both A-han and Birdy are hiding in the stalls until A-han decides to intervene. He gets pressured to carry on with the deed but, in a moment of stunning indecision, Birdy steps out of the stall and decisively takes the student to safety.
Later, during a trip to Taipei to participate in the public mourning for President Chiang Ching-kuo, A-han and Birdy ominously witness a protester with a sign saying ‘Homosexuality is not a disease!’ get dragged away by police. As A-han stops a fired up Birdy from getting involved, one can feel the dark cloud that’s settled over their story, even as they share tender moments for the rest of their trip.
They inevitably grow closer, feelings and identities simmer. Throw in the school admitting girls into the student body, and confusion quickly bubbles up to the surface, eventually spilling over in violent ways.
The dark cloud follows the protagonists around from there, its presence never truly imposing, inconspicuous overhead though very much felt from below. Everyone around them seems to be getting into plenty of trouble for their non-conforming sexual desires and identities, yet A-han and Birdy manage to dodge one bullet after the other as they dance around one another’s feelings. It’s not pretty, but it’s raw and heartfelt.
What is especially striking about this film, which is available on Netflix, is its subtle examination of progress and change. There is a recurring incredulity about the reality of the time – hints of expectations and hopes that life in Taiwan should have been entirely transformed the moment Martial Law ended.
“I thought Martial Law was lifted,” Birdy exclaims in frustration at one point. A-han, though still a teenager, wisely lays out the hard truth in response: “Do you think the world has changed? Actually, it hasn’t changed a bit.”
Here, and in other points throughout the film, there is an emphasis on change as a process. While it’s true that some things can instantly be different, holistic and lasting change typically comes only after a million and one small steps over a significant period of time. In the case of A-han and Birdy’s Taiwan, Martial Law ended but it was very clear that prejudices and deep-rooted belief systems did not go away overnight. This theme in the film hits home when you are aware that Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019, more than three decades since the end of Martial Law.
The film’s most powerful dialogue, in my view, happens between A-han and Father Oliver, the school priest and teacher to whom A-han confides.
A-Han: You were the one who told me to live in the moment.
Father Oliver: I didn’t know you liked boys at that time.
A-Han: So you can like girls, but I can’t like boys? Is your love bigger than the love I give? Tell me. What’s the difference between your love and mine? Tell me the difference!
Father Oliver: If he doesn’t love you, don’t force him to. That is also living in the moment.
A-Han: That’s impossible! I can feel that he cares about me too.
Father Oliver: ‘Care’ doesn’t necessarily mean love. The bible tells us to control our desires. Don’t cause others to go to hell.
A-Han: Help me go to hell then. I’d rather go to hell now. Don’t all homosexuals deserve to go to hell? Maybe more people would understand me in hell. Make it easy for me and help me go to hell.
A-han’s plea is at once desperate, heartwrenching and, more than anything, clear: he knows exactly who he is and where he stands, even if it means standing alone. Though obviously, he would prefer solidarity.
“Maybe more people would understand me in hell.” It is an articulation of a kernel of truth that lives inside many of us: in spite of everything, we crave only real connection and to be understood.
How many of us have experienced such a fraught and potent time in our lives that went on to define us? A time we still carry with us later in life, or a time that, while long reckoned with, irrevocably altered the course of our path?
Birdy and A-han do not encounter one another again until they are much older – in a time and place where two men can kiss each other against a wall outside a pub in plain view, and no one would look twice.
“Who knew? Who knew what the world would be like after 30 years?”
How much can the world change in one lifetime?
It is a gut punch and a half when it arrives— deep despair over something that should have but was never given the chance to materialise.
Quiet, empty streets seem to unfurl untrodden paths; the glow of yellow lamps deep in the night like hazy memories waiting to be recalled; and the warm, honest conversation in between comfortable silence an echo of what could have been.
One look and they both saw their unlived lives. If only they were born in a different place, at a different time, they could simply be.
How much can the world change in one lifetime? So much, apparently, and you could completely miss it.
I often zoom out of my own self and consider what my life would look like as a whole when it’s all said and done. Recently, on a nerdier level, I’ve started wondering what other versions of myself might be like in parallel universes. If they do exist, I hope they are, at the very least, happy.
Most days I will believe that Your Name Engraved Herein is as much about the injustices of rigidity and exclusion, as it is about how progress, even if for the better, can still inflict pain through missed chances and regrets.
But weeks after I watched the film’s credits roll and Netflix had suggested the next latest thing to watch, A-han and Birdy’s smiling, seemingly content faces and their quiet chuckles as they refused to end the night grew clearer in my mind. I came to a thought: as much as this film was a lamentation of what could have been, it was also, ultimately, an acknowledgement – and arguably an appreciation – of what is and what could still be.
After all, this one lifetime, however much we miss, is all we ever really get no matter what.
Meanwhile, the climate crisis…
If you haven’t read my welcome post, I mentioned that I’d like to conduct an experiment: for every essay, I will include a piece about the climate crisis so we’re in the loop even when we’re lost in our own rabbit holes. So here we go.
As I was writing this essay (literally down this rabbit hole), Unearthed, Greenpeace’s journalism project, published an investigation into how major airlines such as British Airways, easyJet, and United Airlines are making promises about offsetting carbon emissions in order to be carbon neutral that are difficult to verify and rely on ‘phantom credits’. It’s a long read but worth at least a skim through. We might never avoid taking flights altogether (I certainly cannot), but understanding what we’re signing up for every time we fly, instead of going in blind, is always helpful.
Thank you for reading. If you like what you see, feel free to subscribe (if you haven’t already), share this on social media or forward it to your friends.
See you down another rabbit hole!