Girlfriend, Boyfriend situates itself firmly within the tradition of coming-of-age melodrama: romantic entanglements, a wistful tone, and an enviably attractive cast facing the looming threats of adult drudgery and (that favorite tear-jerking standby) premature death. But writer/director Yang Ya-che—who had made a specialty out of youth stories through novels, TV dramas, and his movie debut Orz Boyz (2008)—adds a dose of historical gravitas to the undertakings here, linking its characters’ youthful restlessness to the fervid political atmosphere of Taiwan’s democratic transition.

The early scenes of Gf*Bf (to use its officially stylized abbreviation) introduce its three protagonists—Liam (Joseph Chang), Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan), and Mabel (Gwei Lun-mei)—as high schoolers in southern Taiwan. The seemingly straitlaced Mabel aids the two boys with teenage pranks like a mass streaking, but even the most juvenile acts of rebellion take greater force against the repressive atmosphere of 1985 Taiwan—represented by the school’s military-garbed political officer (who censors the student paper) and Mabel’s illicit trade in underground magazines with names like “Freedom” and “Democracy.” The trio’s antics shade into activism, which comes to the fore when they’re reunited in Taipei (where Liam and Aaron attend university) and join one of the formative events of modern Taiwanese history: the Wild Lily Student Movement of 1990.

Participants in this movement were emboldened by Taiwan’s gradual opening in the late ’80s—the abolition of martial law; the de facto legalization of opposition parties; the loosening of the taboo on the Taiwan independence issue; the ascendancy of reform-minded President Lee Teng-hui, who unlike his predecessors was born and raised in Taiwan and not China—but sought faster, more far-reaching changes. The demands were varied, but mostly centered on direct election of the president and a new National Assembly, then dominated by elderly mainlanders ensconced in their seats since the last all-China elections of the 1940s. For six days, thousands of students occupied Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square, the symbolic center of Taiwanese civic life named for the island’s late dictator. The occupation ended after President Lee met with student leaders and assured them that reforms would continue; an all-new National Assembly would be elected the next year (though popular elections for president had to wait until 1996), and Memorial Square is now known as Liberty Square to commemorate its role in Taiwan’s democratization.

The White Lily Movement included students of all ages, plus more than a few non-students like Mabel. But at its core were university students like Liam and Aaron, at a time when a college diploma was still a marker of elite status. They were the presumptive politicians, technocrats, educators, and industrialists of tomorrow, and however idealistic they might’ve been, most would submit to the traditional pressures to marry, start families, and find jobs worthy of their stations. Family and relationships, not public protests, are the primary sites of struggle in Gf*Bf, as the love triangle ebbs and flows with the years. By 1997, Aaron has married into a wealthy family while carrying on an affair with his longtime crush Mabel, while Mabel’s old crush Liam—last seen confessing to Mabel his unrequited love for Aaron—is in an unsatisfying relationship with a closeted married man.

This type of triangular relationship wasn’t new to Taiwanese cinema; in fact, a similar dynamic had figured in the breakthrough films of both Gwei Lun-mei (2002’s Blue Gate Crossing, on which Yang worked as an assistant director) and Joseph Chang (Eternal Summer, 2006). But the political background lends the characters’ predicaments greater weight, even as it recedes further into the distance through the course of the story. One bitter irony of these later sequences is that the Taiwan of 1997 is sufficiently “progressive” that a gay couple can hold a wedding party to rival that of any heterosexual union, but more than twenty years would pass before such marriages gained any legal recognition.

This implied critique of complacency following the democratic transition is made explicit in contemporary comments from Yang (“We’ve been lazy about expressing our feelings for a long time, thinking demonstrations are useless”). But for all its heartbreak and tragedy, Girlfriend, Boyfriend finds hope in the recurrence of youth, which with every generation must choose between the path laid out for it or the more difficult road of self-actualization—national, sexual, and otherwise. Sure enough, Yang’s paean to youthful protest captured an emerging zeitgeist. The headline-grabbing incident recreated in the opening scene—students at a girls’ high school demanding the right to wear shorts instead of skirts—was followed in 2014 by a show of force surpassing even that of 1990: the 23-day occupation of Taiwan’s legislature over a proposed trade agreement with China. These events were quickly dubbed the “Sunflower Movement,” a floral moniker signaling its inspiration in the Wild Lily Movement, and demolished the stereotype of politically-apathetic young Taiwanese. The revolution renews itself.

Josh Martin

Girlfriend, Boyfriend screens at 7:30 P.M. on Thursday, February 27th at the AFS Cinema, presented by the Austin Taiwanese Association and Taiwanese American Professionals – Austin in partnership with the AAAFF. For tickets and more info, visit the AFS website.