Directed by: Arvin Chen
Distributed by: TBA
Written by Patrick Hao
The Taiwanese film “Mama Boy” might be the only film at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival that one could say is indebted to “Harold and Maude.” No, the age difference between the central romance is not as extreme as Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort. Rather, Arvin Chen’s “Mama Boy” captures the melancholy of two people who find comfort and love with each other through that melancholy, with a little bit of Oedipal complex in there. It helps that Chen also has the stylistic bonafides to creatively back this complicated tightrope walk of tone and theme.
The central romance is between Xiao Hong (Kai Ko) and Lele (played by the hugely famous Vivian Hsu). Xiao Hong is an emotionally stunted individual due to his overbearing mother (Yu Tzu-yu) who seems to control all aspects of his life. This has predictably led him to a life in which, despite being almost 30, he has never had a meaningful relationship with anyone outside his mother. Xiao Hong’s cousin decides for his birthday to take Xiao Hong to experience a woman for the first time at a brothel that operates out of a hotel.
As you can imagine, the experience does not go well due to Xiao Hong’s inability to interact with a woman. But, he does leave particularly intrigued by the Madame of the brother, Sister Lele. Maybe it’s because she exudes a motherly feeling or maybe it’s her mystique, but Xiao Hong finds himself going back to the brothel as a client to see more of her. Eventually, his frequent visits crack her exterior and she begins to befriend him, taking him on as a dancing partner and general companion.
The movie is entirely successful due to the soulful performance by acting veteran Vivian Hsu. She exudes the world-weariness of someone who has made plenty of mistakes in her life and is simply living because she has to. Her character, despite her success, is troubled by her fractured relationship with her son who disapproves of her line of work and has been getting into trouble gambling and falling deeper into debt.
The relationship between Xiao Hong and Sister Lele clearly fills a need for both of them. For Xiao Hong, Sister Lele presents a meaningful relationship with a woman that is not his mother, but who still has the comfort of a matriarch figure. For Sister Lele, Xiao Hong presents the possibility of repentance over past regrets with her own son. This delicate dance of Freudian sensibilities slowly unfurls at a dream-like pace. Their interactions are often at night – Xiao Hong’s mother works the night shift presenting night time as the best time for the couple’s clandestine meetups – allowing for heightened stylizations making it seem like they are the only two people in the sprawling urban jungle.
Their relationship is romantic but not in a sexual way. Just too lonely broken people who find solace in each other. The film never plays this dynamic with a heavy hand, ending on the perfect note of emotional maturity for both characters. It is impressive how much restraint such a stylish movie has. This makes sense for Arvin Chen, a director who got his start working with Edward Yang. “Mama Boy” features a fascinating mix of Taiwan’s new wave sensibilities with populist impulses to create a meaningful melancholic romance.