An effective character piece that takes it’s time to get going, Dear Ex handles difficult material such as sexuality and grief with elegance.
A Netflix production, Dear Ex is a Taiwanese film from directorial partnership Chih-Yen Hsu and Mag Hsu that tells the story of a feud between a grieving widow, the man her husband left her for, and their dispute over life insurance. Dear Ex, however, is much more about the relationships the deceased man had with his ex-wife Liu Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hsieh), his lover Jay (Roy Chiu), and his son Song Chengxi (Joseph Huang), and how each of them come to terms both with his death and how he lived.
This film takes it’s time to get going. The first 30 minutes or so establish the situation and introduce us to the characters. Liu Sanlian is angry and bitter that her husband left her and her son for another man and not only that, named Jay as his primary beneficiary on his life insurance. Jay appears to be a listless slacker attempting to direct what appears to be a poor quality play. Song Chengxi is angry and frustrated with his mother for being angry and frustrated. However, as the film picks up the pace we are given a much deeper understanding of the characters, who they are now and more importantly who they were before their loss, making the narrative feel richer and more satisfying than the plot alone.
Dear Ex makes effective use of flashbacks to give us a better understanding of the characters and their relationship to the deceased Song Zhengyuan. Each of the scenes takes place in a tight space (the rafters in a theatre, a cramped home office etc) which intensifies the feeling that as a viewer you are intruding on something intimate and private. Each of these scenes hits the right chord and brings us closer to the central characters. You come to understand what Zhengyuan meant to each of them and also what each of them meant to him. This device is particularly effective when introducing the love story between Song Xhengyuan and Jay; we learn that they met years earlier but Song Xhengyuan, struggling to come to terms with his sexuality, leaves to try and live a “normal life”. When he becomes ill he leaves his family to spend his last days with his true love, devastating a confused Liu Sanlian.
Much of the story is told through the eyes of Song Chengxi who runs away from home to live with Jay. We know that he is confused by Jay and initially sees him as the enemy until he gets to know him and his motivations better, in the end brokering a truce between Jay and his mother. It is a shame though that the film does not give us more of an understanding of the bond between father and son. Aside from one short flashback scene, we do not really get a sense of his relationship with his father which could have rounded out Song Chengxi even more as a character.
The performances are all outstanding, the cast each do a wonderful job of showing themselves before and after grief and all of them manage to come to terms if not with their own grief then at least by the end of the film they have a better understanding of each other’s.
Andy joined the Ready Steady Cut team in October 2018. A Graduate of Exeter University, he writes mainly about films and TV.