Mama Boy — Arvin Chen
Credit: Filmagic Pictures Co.
by Christopher Bourne Film

Mama Boy — Arvin Chen [NYAFF ’22 Review]

July 19, 2022

Taiwanese-American filmmaker Arvin Chen‘s previous two features, Au Revoir Taipei (2010) and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (2013), are light, bubbly, visually vibrant variations on romantic comedy, populated with casts of colorful characters and peppered with musical sequences. His third feature, Mama Boy, exhibits these same qualities, but injects considerably more depth and poignancy, much of this thanks to the excellent performance by the Taiwanese star at its center — actress/pop singer Vivian Hsu. 

The film’s titular character is Xiao-hong (heartthrob Kai Ko, playing very much against type), a shy, withdrawn fish store employee who lives with his domineering mom Meiling (Yu Tzu-yu), who closely controls nearly all aspects of his life. She constantly exhorts him to find a wife, citing the fact that he’s almost 30 and she won’t be around forever. Meiling sets up a blind date for Xiao-hong with her co-worker’s daughter; given that Xiao-hong has zero game and not the slightest clue of how to talk to women, this date predictably ends in disaster. Xiao-hong’s cousin and co-worker, after hearing about his failed date, takes him to a love hotel with an organized prostitution business, where Xiao-hong can hopefully lose his virginity with one of the escorts in the hotel. But Xiao-hong is no more successful at being a john than at dating; he runs away in a panic just a few minutes into the session. However, through the experience, he becomes drawn to Sister Lele (Vivian Hsu), an older woman who runs the escort business. Xiao-hong subsequently makes frequent return visits to the hotel, pretending to be an escort client when he’s really there to see Sister Lele.

Sister Lele’s story gets as much screen time as Xiao-hong’s, and Hsu’s beautifully soulful performance nicely conveys her character’s weariness and regrets about what her life has become. She has her own son, Weijie (Fandy Fan), an aimless young man who continually runs afoul of loan sharks and gangsters due to his successive get-rich-quick schemes, and who only visits his mother to ask to borrow money. There’s clearly an Oedipal aspect to Xiao-hong and Lele’s almost-but-not-quite romantic relationship, though the film doesn’t lean too heavily on this. There’s also a neatly contrasting symmetry to the mother-son relationships on display, with Meiling being too protective of her son, while Lele isn’t protective enough of hers. If Pedro Almodovar hadn’t already taken the title Parallel Mothers, it could be equally appropriate for this film.

Chen’s visual compositions, aided by ace cinematographer Jake Pollock, are often just as elegantly symmetrical as the plotting. The film’s loveliest sequences are set in the bar Sister Lele frequents, where she and Xiao-hong listen to music and dance. This bar also occasions the touches of magic realism that greatly enhance the pleasurable effects of this frothy confection with a sweet, yet melancholic aftertaste.

Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.