I first watched Dear Ex two weeks ago. I had to watch it in bits and pieces in between my household chores and my mothering duties. It made me feel many things. Since then, I have watched it twice more, once with my husband, once on my own in its entirety just because I loved the film so much despite its eyebrow-raising plot.
A man dies. Instead of naming his wife or his teenage son as the beneficiary of his insurance money, he names his male lover as the receiver of the substantial payout. Chaos inevitably ensued.
The story starts with Liu San-Lian banging at the door of Jay, her husband’s lover. Teenage son, Song Cheng-Xi watches from the sidelines then serves as one of the most unwilling film narrators on the face of the film industry, to the whole fiasco.
You would expect the third-party, home-wrecking Jay to want to get out of this mess as fast as possible. But he stays, and he tolerates the mother-son duo, even when the son shows up at his door one day, refusing to go home to his overbearing and pushy mother (to be fair, she had thrown out his keepsakes from his estranged father). Multiple times through the show, Jay reminds the boy to be respectful to his mother. On the surface, it’s a Chinese thing, but you will eventually realise why Jay does this.
Young Song Cheng Xi depicts his mother as a woman who seems to think the whole world owes her something. We see her depicted as a difficult woman who is always screaming at her son for being late for school, over bad grades in school, over missing his dead(beat) father, etc.
From the get-go, my husband of 10+ years asked me if she reminds me of anyone. I promise him I’d break his legs if he doesn’t shut up and watch the rest of the movie. But my better half is right, I do see myself and every other Asian woman in Cheng Xi’s difficult mother – albeit a much toned down version of it.
The guilt I throw at my children at the dinner table is but a small percentage of what she throws at her son, but I recognise the familiar script.
I also recognise the heartbreak and anger of a mother when she fears her children is not trying enough, and the tears that come afterwards – something the son depicts as Hollywood-level acting skills (I’m surprised he didn’t refer to the drama queens of Taiwan TV series who can shed a tear in the blink of an eye #lostopportunity).
But Liu San Lien is a mother through and through, even when she is picking a fight with the “mistress”, she makes sure that her son has something to drink before she enters the house of a total stranger to battle him to the death. Did you notice that? It’s one of the many nuances I enjoy from this show.
Despite the betrayal she feels from her cheating husband’s choice of her alternative version, she would still clean the house of her husband’s gay lover just so her son won’t have an allergic reaction to the dust mites and overall unhygienic living conditions her son is subjecting himself to.
And for all that she does for her son, after all the sacrifices she had made for her dead husband’s son, the naive boy tells her, “I didn’t ask you to (sacrifice for me).”
And you wonder why there are Tiger Moms all over Asia.
Some of the best scenes in the show are always when these three are on-screen at the same time. Take for instance the back alley conversation when the mother implores her son to go home with her while at the same time leaving instructions to the custodian to watch out for her son (wake him up for school at 6AM) despite said custodian’s pleas (for the love of God, take him home already, lady!).
I don’t know how they could all keep a straight face through the hilarious exchange.
The only scene more hilarious than that one is when Cheng Xi attempts to jump off Jay’s balcony. The son refuses to come down unless his mother vacates the premises. Stepmom demands the son come down and go home with his mother. The mother bickers-pleas-bickers-pleas with stepmom, because.
When he finally gets the boy down and starts roughing him up for being an ass, the mother steps in to stop him. Jay loses it and then lets it loose at Mrs Song before she pulls out the “curse on my family” card (it’s a Chinese thing).
He shouts at her to take the boy to a temple to pray (again, a Chinese thing) but she leaves without the boy because he’s a child but still too big to drag home. She passes a temple on the way, and stops to consider.
(1) The whole scene is both emotional for a mother and hilarious for everyone else.
(2) If you ever wonder why aunties look like aunties (unkempt, out-of-place, tired, dehydrated), then it’s because they put up with a lot of shit from home. Your shit.
Ok, enough about the mother-themed analysis. Let’s look at this from other angles.
You’re Breaking My Heart
This movie deals with a lot of heavy plot lines and it isn’t until the story reaches the husband’s story before we fully understand what is happening.
I have to say that if you want to watch the magic unfold on its own, it’s best to stop reading and watch the show.
Spoilers ahead. No holds barred.
Cheating husband Song Cheng-Yuan died from the big C, liver. While he was dying, he decided to embrace his true love, Jay, whom he had loved long before he had been together with Liu San Lien.
A particularly poignant conversation Jay had with his dead lover’s soul dances around why he could not tell his mother about them. It is a talk that speaks of love and understanding and oddly enough, responsibility to our parents and how it is ok to lie to them so long as we do not make them sad (it’s a Chinese thing). Things are put succinctly, made simple, made pure, all coming from a place of love. It’s a conversation you should watch played out as it is.
So technically, Jay wasn’t a home-wrecker. Liu San Lien and a judgemental society held Cheng-Yuan hostage for years, until cancer forced him to choose once and for all. With the little time he has left, he chooses to deal with the consequences of treatment and therapy with Jay instead of with his wife and son. I don’t know about you but I call that kindness.
Jay does a lot more than just take care of Cheng-Yuan during his time of need. He devotes his time, love and part of his liver to the ailing man, and even takes him to school to watch Cheng Xi walk home from school. And to get part of his liver into Cheng-Yuan, that’s going to need some money, right? Jay took care of that too, borrowing money from loan sharks and getting a leg broken in the process.
And there you have it. The insurance money is to repay Jay’s debt to the loan shark since he borrowed it for Cheng-Yuan’s surgery anyways. Looks like Jay isn’t such a bad guy after all, and Cheng-Yuan made all the wrong decisions because society would not allow him to make all the right ones.
So who is the bad guy?
I have always rolled with the idea that in real life, there are no good guys and there are no bad guys. We’re all both good and bad. It just depends on what situations we are boxed in, and perspective: who is telling the story. So from this perspective, is Liu San Lien the bad guy in Dear Ex?
After all, she incessantly harps after Jay over the insurance money, demanding that he returns it to her son. So often does she does this that it terribly irks her son.
Right after this scene, she cries at the altar saying how unfair life is, then becomes determined to tell Jay’s mother that her son is gay. And she does it, because what does she have to lose? She’s out to draw blood and draw blood, she will.
But again, let me remind you, Liu San Lien is a mother through and through. She never asked for the money for herself. She asked it for her ungrateful ingrate of a son. And you think being told your son is gay is hurtful? How about when your own husband tells you that he likes men and your whole marriage is a lie?
Her impromptu therapy session would unpack all the sense of betrayal and hurt she has been carrying around throughout the whole movie, culminating in the ultimate one-liner that would break a million hearts.
A lesser woman would have completely lost it, but not a mother, and definitely not Liu San Lien. If there is no love lost, that’s okay. She has a son, a gift from her gay husband. And even if he can’t love her and her son, the least he could do is fund his son’s studies post-death.
But you don’t take debts to your grave, and you don’t let the living pay your debts for you. And at the end of the day, Liu San Lien, with that big forgiving heart of hers, did her wifely duty and carried out her dead husband’s final wish.
At this point if you still plan to watch Dear Ex – and why wouldn’t you? – know that you can still enjoy the show even if you know how it is going to play out. There are plenty more hilarious and heartwarming surprises to look forward to. So grab a box of tissues unless your heart is made of stone, and just Press Play.