Domestic dramas have to walk a fine line between sweetness and pathos, and the shaggy-yet-lovable new film Dear Ex succeeds at this balance more than others. The Taiwanese heartstring-tugger, now available on Netflix after only being acquired by the service a week ago, circles around three complicated, hard-to-love characters, allowing their complexities to cloud their better natures. As in last year's lovely Israeli drama The Cakemaker, the film links these figures via a closeted, recently deceased family man: a specter of authenticity cloaked in secrecy, who forces a reckoning for the loved ones he left behind.
The film opens with 13-year-old Chengxi (Joseph Huang) claiming he always knew his dad was gay. It has been three months since his professor father's death from cancer, and Chengxi learns he's been written out of his insurance policy. His prone-to-hysterics mother Sanlian (Ying-Xuan Hsieh) knows the truth: that her deceased husband Zhangyuan secretly named his longtime male lover as his benefactor, but that the claim can't go through unless she signs off on it. So Sanlian drags Chengxi along to the mystery man's ramshackle apartment, hoping to spur a confrontation that will somehow put the lid back on the wreckage of their lives.
The first third of Dear Ex is told from Chengxi's perspective, and it's the strongest chunk of the film by far: a strange blend of sullen teen angst and the shock of an uncovered secret. The kid is utterly fascinated by his father's lover Jay, a thirtysomething community theater director who can be furious one minute and tender the next. (He's played by a terrific Roy Chiu, whose raw, prickly performance has no trace of the mincing-younger-gay-lover onscreen stereotype.) To escape his mother's needling, Chengxi moves himself into Jay's life without asking permission, and the two develop a wary bond as they putter through the city on Jay's moped, trying to figure out what they mean to each other. Writer-director Mag Hsu and her co-director Chih-Yen Hsu stage these scenes in bright, brilliant hues, with long shots of the characters maneuvering around each other in hallways that bring to mind some of the early work of pioneering Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang.
As the film broadens in scope, incorporating flashbacks and new dynamics like Jay's traditionalist mother, it also shifts perspective: first to Sanlian, and then to Jay. But along the way, it loses the spark that came with a teenager's incomplete-yet-restless worldview, instead entering a world of full-bore melodrama. Sanlian's storyline, in particular, feels retrograde, both in her views on gay men and in her cartoonish attempts to keep a handle on her son by any means necessary – including an obsession with sending him off to college in Canada.