The opening and closing credits of the exuberant character drama Girlfriend Boyfriend seem set in the stars—or, perhaps, in a glittering body of plankton and other oceanic microorganisms just nearly out of the sunlight’s reach. Either interpretation fits, as Ya-che Yang’s exquisitely rendered film is as much concerned with its central semi-romantic triangle as it is with the vastness of people and places of the world that constantly, if invisibly, shape their experiences, not unlike the gravity bodies in space inflict on each other, often bringing them closer together even as they threaten to tear them apart (“waves welling up from the same ocean” goes a poem twice referenced).
Following a brief introduction set during the present day, the story proper begins in 1985 Taiwan, where the decades-long martial-law tactics erected against the influence of communist China are on the verge of crumbling. Mabel (Lun Mei Gwei), Liam (Joseph Chang Hsiao-Chuan), and Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan) are among the students who work tirelessly to counter the fascist influence of their would-be educators, staging peaceful dance protests, publishing subversive literature, and going undercover as narcs, all the while attempting to negotiate the traditional wants and needs of adolescence and young adulthood. In this way, Girlfriend Boyfriend suggests something of an inversion of The Bubble; whereas Eytan Fox’s great film examined the effects of political strife vis-à-vis his character’s larger apathy toward and exclusion from unfolding history, Yang’s cast is almost exhaustively connected to the world around them, regardless of whether or not their actions bear a lasting impact.
The commercial and social trends of the world pass by observed but generally unacknowledged as Girlfriend Boyfriend shifts forward by years and decades at a time, the developing relationships among its antagonists (Aaron convinces Mabel to be his girlfriend, well aware of her unrequited love for the still-closeted Liam, but confident he’s the “best second choice around”) the point of narrative focus even as their larger lives frequently threaten to fly apart at the seams. The editorial rhythms of the film suggest lived-in moments plucked from one’s memory banks, some momentary projections of desire (as in the ravishing lovemaking sequence, less existentially carnal than Eric Bana’s catharsis in Munich, but just as breathtaking), others reflective of a longed-for time and place held onto dearly as the years roll by.
Yang’s prodigious command of his material suggests an intuitive understanding of film’s ability to evoke sensations beyond sight and sound, and numerous quotidian moments involving characters’ need to feel and even smell their surroundings further probe their utter inextricability from all that surrounds them. An early act of solidarity concerning shaved hair beautifully signifies that these admirable people are in it for the long haul, and the deft use of political context lends Girlfriend Boyfriend a tremendous hopefulness even during its most bleak passages. An unspoken nod to Casablanca confirms the film’s interest in good souls making difficult choices under impossible circumstances, but the film’s profoundly articulated thesis might be best summarized in an off-the-cuff toast: “Fuck it, to the sufferers!”