Girlfriend Boyfriend (Gf*Bf) – Taiwan, 2012
As I write this review, one of Taiwan’s leading political parties is marching towards Taipei in an effort to make its collective voice heard on a number of important issues. The act, regardless of whether one agrees with the causes that are championed or the slogans that are shouted, is important, for not so long ago, simply talking about holding such a demonstration could have had significant repercussions. Much has changed in just one generation.
Director Ya-che Yang’s sophomore effort, Girlfriend Boyfriend, begins with a recent highly publicized incident at a high school for girls in Taiwan. The high school had recently instituted a dress code requiring its students to wear long skirts. The students would have none of it, though. At a school function, they staged a rally, shouted, “We want to wear shorts!” and en masse tore off their school-mandated skirts. By including a variation of this event, Yang is putting himself in an awkward position. On the one hand, he could be equating the struggle of these young students to the struggles of those that came before them, a comparison which doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to me. On the other hand, Yang could be using the incident to contrast the priorities or rights of two generations. One had to struggle for basic freedoms, while the other has these freedoms and is now free to stage protests over such inconsequential matters as the length of their school uniforms. My sense is that Yang sees the latter protest as an extension of the earlier ones. However, it is a hard sell.
Girlfriend Boyfriend tells two parallel stories: one personal, the other political. The first is the story of Mabel, Liam, and Aaron, three high school classmates in southern Taiwan. After the awkward bookend involving the student protest over their school uniforms, the audience is transported back in time to when our three protagonists were of high school age. We watch as they fight against the censorship of a student newspaper and the draconian behaviors of their school officials, while simultaneously coping with issues more normally associated with the teenage years – attraction, first kisses, unrequited love. It goes without saying that there is a love story. However, this one more closely resembles the one featured in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine than the recent Taiwanese hit You are the Apple of my Eye. Here, Mabel loves Liam, Liam loves Aaron, and Aaron loves Mabel. Normally, this would cause conflict, yet for these characters, it serves to strengthen their friendship. As the film progresses, we watch as they go from wide-eyed teenagers who fought to change their world to pragmatic adults who settle for less than they should but who never stop moving forward.
The film’s other story is that of Taiwan itself. The film begins in 1985 during Taiwan’s dark days of martial law and censorship and then moves to 1990, during its rocky first few years of democracy. During this part of the film, we see evidence of a chasm that exists between the government and its people. Sure, political demonstrations are tolerated, but the police are always ready to move in if a line is crossed. At a political rally, Mabel happens to see riot police positioning themselves along the walls of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, as if they are just waiting for the signal to move in. The fear on her face is palpable, and the film hints at an eventual altercation between protesters and police. During this part of the film, Mabel, Aaron, and Liam live in a large home with a number of other people, and there are references to its residents being a bit uninhibited. Freedom sometimes has that affect on people. However, even under situations such as these, there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and much to the detriment of their friendship, Aaron crosses one of them.
As the film progresses, politics becomes less of a factor in their lives. Democracy and freedom having been gained, they turn toward more immediate and personal goals like family, love, career, and money. It’s safe to say that all of them violate their principles in some way. The latter part of the film is a telling reminder that knowing the value of your human rights does not always mean knowing your own self-worth.
Girlfriend Boyfriend is strongly acted and well-written, and Yang’s talent as a director is on full display. His use of colors and shadows is particularly striking. Bright colors seem to represent all that is good about life, such as freedom, nature, food and love, while darker colors represent danger and secrets. It is in this secretive world that late-night rendezvous, both heterosexual and homosexual, occur, a telling reminder that expanded freedoms do not necessarily bring with them a change in attitude. The personal side of the film is also interesting, yet it doesn’t always seem as if it has anything original to say. A similar love triangle was explored in Miao Miao, although to less success, and moviegoers familiar with homosexual themes in film will recognize many of Liam’s attributes and not be surprised where the film takes the character. In fact, the ending perpetuates the stereotype that a gay character exists just to bail out a straight character whenever she gets in trouble.
That said, the film is well worth watching. It is filled with interesting characters and fascinating insights into both Taiwanese history and Taiwanese culture. Kwai Lunwei (Mabel) continues to grow as an actress, and she deserves all of the accolades that she has received for her work in the film. Hsiao-chuan Chang (Liam) and Rhydian Vaughan (Aaron) also deserve praise for their work, for they create characters that are likable understandable, and sympathetic. Girlfriend Boyfriend is simultaneously at look at Taiwan’s past, present, and future, and it foretells positive things for Taiwanese cinema. It is certainly worth seeking out. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars
*Girlfriend Boyfriend is in Min Nan and Mandarin with English subtitles.