Last updated: February 15, 2021

The Lyrical against the Epic: Your Name Engraved Herein Review

Watching Your Name Engraved Herein (Engraved thereafter) was an interesting experience: I thought it would be a real tearjerker, but I can’t say I was genuinely touched; everything felt oddly familiar. It didn’t wreck me the way Girlfriend, Boyfriend (Gf, Bf) did in 2012. And yet, I can’t stop thinking about it. In fact, I wanted to have a new blogging platform because I felt the desperate need to say something about it. I also translated—or, attempted at a poetic interpretation of—the theme song of the film. I’ve been listening to it basically nonstop for the last 72 hours straight. It’s incredible.

Some immediate thoughts after watching. Engraved tried too hard. Having watched most of the Taiwanese gay-themed movies in the past two decades, I can see the directors are paying homage to all their predecessors and make their ambition obvious: it is to become part of the great gay cinematic tradition—the Great Work Begins! And western media never seems tired of the progressivist story:1 look, this was Taiwan in 1980s, and thirty years later they became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Look how far they’ve come—das ist Aufklärung! I didn’t really feel any of that. I was in high school in Taiwan from 2008–2011, and again, the experience felt remarkably similar. Now, Taipei may not be too different from San Francisco, in that few would rain on our parade, but Taipei is one small part of the island. Generation gap—plus the conflicts that may ensue—still exists: one may be accepted by their peers, but not necessarily by their parents, and that’s the problem.

If anything, the movie counters this progressivist narrative: nothing really changed, at least not that much. While we may have elected a female president (twice), who defeated the Nationalist/KMT tradition that the movie ridicules, its presence remains strong in contemporary Taiwanese society, and our democracy remains young and feeble. This is not exactly a new theme; Gf, Bf, for one, amounts to a masculinist inquiry, and the characters are deprived of their agency to reject the (Foucauldian) power writ large. Liam (together with Mabel and Aaron) is the unfortunate victim of the repressive hypothesis. But interestingly that does not apply to A-Han and Birdy; they manage to stage multiple wanderings/diasporas (to Pingtung, of all places, and eventually to Quebec). To come out of the closet, it seems, one has to come out of everything else first. A-Han is an admirable character because he’s the one that somehow moves past and beyond the physical and psychological barriers in search for his personal and spiritual—other than merely sexual—liberation. Liam never really does in Gf, Bf. And the most significant departure from the formulae that characterize the genre, A-Han and Birdy did love each other in high school. A-Han, unlike Liam, is not dealing with an entirely hopeless crush. Throughout the film, he is driven by love, more than anything else, and there exists some chance, however scarce, for reciprocity. This makes A-Han rather distinct, it seems to me; he’s not defined by repression and guilt.

Indeed, the Great Gay Tradition has largely been about redemption; the most appealing aspect about Engraved is how it is ultimately about the recovery of autonomy that would enable A-Han and Birday to seek personal reparation. The most moving scene for me is when A-Han’s passionate dialectics of love culminates in him demanding Father Oliver, “Help me to go to hell.” Obviously, he is neither Aeneas nor Paul; he can’t be an hero of epic proportion, not in the classical sense. What turns out to be pleasantly surprising is that his presumptive guide is just as troubled—of course, the dramatic irony comes only belatedly. Along with the less pleasant scene in Feb 28 Memorial Park, Engraved artistically destructs all the patriarchal symbols out there. Only when they are out of our way can we seek to develop a new aesthetic paradigm. Eventually, “everyone’s first love is like an epic” will still hold; on the other side, there will be something meaningful and grandeur, like how every hero’s journey ends. It may be late for Jia-han and Birdy. But there’s hope.

Poetic interpretation

The gay tradition has been a lyrical one. The directors conclude the movie essentially with a mini musical; when the lyrical advances, the epic retreats. If you don’t remember the song, I would recommend that you review and check out this cover.

I can’t call this translation because I paid zero attention to, alas, fidelity and equivalence. My goal is to recreate the aesthetic experience through another language (English). Many phrases are hard to translate, or basically untranslatable (they evoke feelings, not make sense), 2 but I think I did a satisfactory job here. I believe Netflix has a more literal translation, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Oublie-le
For so many times I’ve told myself:
The harder you chase the shadow of the light,
The farther you are from it. That’s it.

“Je t’aimais”
Engraved only on my heart.
On the other end of my difficult confessions
Is your generous silence.

On the bottom of my heart—
Your name engraved herein—
Where time has lost its essence.
And so my only lie lingers
All of my life. Once,
Only a deadlock existed
Between the world and I, so tenacious.
Mere breathing felt luxurious.

If there’s a next time,
I will fall in love again.

On the bottom of my heart—
Your name engraved herein,
Buried and sealed—or how do I live
The rest of my life?
I am surrounded by neon lights.
In my hand is the address
That would bring me up to paradise.
You soar high,
And here I stay, stagnant.

Looking for you—
Lost in the crowd, but thought of you
Again, struggled to leave
The thoughts behind, but memories—
They brought me back, back into the past.

On the bottom of my heart—
Your name engraved herein—
Where time has lost its essence.
I’d let myself fall in love once
And forever, just once.
I wish the world would stay like this
So memories wouldn’t feel luxurious.

If there’s a next time,
I will fall in love again.

On the bottom of my heart—
Your name engraved herein,
Buried and sealed—or how do I live
The rest of my life?
I reside in my remembrance
Of you, with the key to the heavens
In my hand. You shall soar,
And I’ll be here, tenacious as ever.

On the bottom of my heart—
Your name engraved herein—
Where time has lost its essence.
I’d let myself fall in love once
And forever, just once.
I wish the world would stay like this
So memories wouldn’t feel luxurious.

If there’s a next time,
I will fall in love again.

***

Your Name Engraved Herein (2020)—recommended; might be useful to have watched Gf, Bf for both historical contexts and baseline

(First posted February 14, 2021)


1

See e.g., TIME’s piece and another one from VICE.

2

Even the title of the song poses an interesting challenge: the literal translation of it would be “the name engraved on the bottom of my heart,” whereas the movie title goes, “the name engraved on the bottom of your heart.” One can read a lot into this alone.

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