What you need to know
A talented cast with an intriguing story of a sex worker and her client is undermined by a rmismatched tone of romantic fantasy.
Mama Boy is Taiwanese American writer-director Arvin Chen’s third feature, this time co-written with wife Sunny Yu. After the perfect portrait of a city that is and the plodding queer midlife crisis film that is Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (2013), I was hoping that Mama Boy would be a return to form. Alas, the intriguing story and talented cast are undermined by the mismatched tone of romantic fantasy.
Hsiao Hung (Kai Ko) is a 29-year-old mama’s boy who works at a fish store. His overloving mother (Debbie Yao) worries over his still being single, when in fact the main reason is because she does things like call him in the middle of a date to ask how it’s going. To help him out, his cousin (Hou Yen-hsi) takes him to a brothel run out of the top floor of a love motel by Sister Lele (Vivian Hsu; Hsiao Hung always calls her “older sister Lele,” without exception). Instead of having sex, he falls for Sister Lele, herself a single mother.
Honestly, who wouldn’t? Hsu is stunning, and somehow even more so when playing a jaded and world-weary independent businesswoman who drinks and smokes. But her sultry voice in betrays the soul of a romantic.
The plot develops exactly as you’d expect it to, and the heavy foreshadowing makes it worse. Chen employed the same heavy-handedness in Will You, and apparently he still doesn’t trust his script or audience enough to stop from leaving Chekhov’s guns all over the place.
This completely kills the mood of romance and whimsy aimed for in the musical montage-filled third act (edited by Chiang Yi-ning), a mood set by a surprising comedic camera movement in the very first scene. Whimsy worked exceptionally well for the one-night adventure of Au Revoir Taipei; in an , Chen says that he used comedy to blunt the darker underworld elements of that film, and here he seems to be blunting the uncomfortable aspects of maternal overattachment.
But the climax depends on those elements, so the result feels at odds with itself. When Hsiao Hung and Lele slow dance and the lighting changes into a chiaroscuro spotlight (cinematography by Jak Pollock), instead of romance, it simply heightens the dread of waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The two protagonists are clearly defined at the outset, but as the film progresses, there’s a noticeable lack of layers. Hsiao Hung is introverted almost to the point of autistic, and one wonders at how he went through 16 years of school (basically everyone goes to college in Taiwan) and two years of compulsory military service in an unadulterated state of tunnel vision. He seemingly lacks the reserve of subjectivity from which a romance could arise. The title of the film thus turns from a typo into a pun, as it not only describes his personality, but also the type of woman he’s romantically attracted to — with heavy incestuous undertones.
Sister Lele never betrays a sexual attraction to Hsiao Hung, who’s about the same age as her own son, Weijie (Fandy Fan). Fan plays him as an oily and obnoxious entrepreneur with bad business sense. From Sister Lele’s detached attitude toward him, we understand that Weijie’s personality stems from a lack of parental attention, but we don’t feel that pain and longing in his performance.
As for Sister Lele herself, it soon becomes clear that she allows Hisao Hung to accompany and entertain her because she’s lonely and bored. It’s only when Hsiao Hung professes his love for her (using the very Western “I love you” instead of the more East Asian “I like you”) that she comes to her senses.
She’s a madam, so we’d expect her to see much earlier the signs that Hsiao Hung is “getting seasick” — falling for a sex worker. Instead, Hsu’s performance is as if of two separate people, with little to suggest that the one could harbor the other inside her.
As the film unspooled, I was constantly and painfully aware of the better film that could’ve been crafted from this material. With more realism instead of romantic comedy, and foreshadowing replaced by more layered character work, this could’ve been a moving and heartfelt exploration of a pure yet socially stigmatized romance. As it stands, Mama Boy is just a detour in the careers of some very talented people.
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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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