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Girlfriend Boyfriend
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by Jay Seaver

"Good folks, blah film."
3 stars

By odd happenstance, "Girlfriend Boyfriend" ("GF*BF", by the title appearing on-screen) is the second Taiwanese film I've seen in as many weeks to start its characters in high school and follow them to the present, and it turns out to be an interesting example of how weightier material doesn't always make for a better movie. "GF*BF" is far more dramatic than the comedic "You Are the Apple of My Eye", but its trio of good performances almost feel trapped by Yang Ya-che's noble intentions.

In 1985, it's easy to mistake classmates Mabel Lin (Gwei Lun-mei) and Liam Chen (Chang Hsiao-chuan) for girlfriend and boyfriend; they are inseparable and cause trouble as a team, including selling forbidden zines at the local market. It's probably also what Mabel wants, but she winds up dating their friend Aaron Yuan (Rhydian Vaughan). He's more attracted to Mabel than vice versa, but since Liam's crush is on Aaron rather than Mabel, what can you do? Five years later, Aaron and Liam are college roommates, but when the three celebrate Aaron's birthday at a protest... Well, things will be different when we check back in on them in 1997.

The movie actually starts in the present day before jumping back 27 years, and if you know anything about the movie going in (which I must confess includes that summary), the ultimate direction of the movie is fairly obvious; even going in cold, I suspect the ultimate destination is clear early. That's not necessarily crippling, but the way that the story moves toward this inevitable ending sucks a great deal of drama out of it; what goes on in 1997 feels more like setting 2012 up than following logically from previous segments. We see some turning points in the characters' lives, but not others that seem like they may be more important, while relatively unimportant characters recur and ones that seem fairly important lurk around the edges. Heck, Yang doesn't even consistently build a timeline that seems like continuous lives; while seemingly throw-away scenes of Mabel appearing to climb the ladder at work does a nice job of tying her story together, there's little such continuity for the other characters, and their unexplained new circumstances in one segment after seeming to be headed in the other direction makes the audience feel out of the loop.

Yang also tends to overburden the movie with things that are Important for Taiwan as opposed to just the characters, although this may be less an issue for the film's native audience. The characters are pointedly involved in protest movements early on, something reflected in the present-day segments in a cool way, but it seems to get a lot more time than merited by how it ties in with Mabel, Liam, and Aaron as individuals; maybe it's just something so prevalent in the Taiwanese youth culture of the time that not mentioning it would seem odd. Also, while Liam's orientation is happily almost incidental to who he is as a person, there are a lot of more stereotypical gay characters and some pointed comments about what rights gay men do and do not have in Taiwan. It's like they want to make a point without making a statement.

But while Yang has trouble building a story, he and the cast have no trouble populating it. Mabel is a terrific character, a troublemaker who knows how to work people and the system, with a big heart despite a sarcastic exterior. Gwei Lun-mei is a delight in the role, making the age change seem real (with some help from the hair, makeup, and costume folks) and making it clear that she's got deep attachments despite her sometimes mercenary-seeming actions. Chang Hsiao-chuan is impressive, too, deepening his character as the movie goes on. Rhydian Vaughan does the best he can with a script that bounces his character around, depending on the script's current needs.

For all the ways that "GF*BF" is a mess, the central characters are so well-realized that the movie often winds up working in spite of itself. Even if Yang doesn't quite seem to know how he wants to tell his story at times, he knows that it's a story of friendship and loyalty. When he focuses on that, it can work much better than it should.

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originally posted: 08/12/12 11:10:04
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Directed by
  Ya-che Yang

Written by
  Ya-che Yang

  Lun-mei Gwei
  Hsiao-chuan Chang
  Rhydian Vaughan
  Bryan Shu-Hao Chang

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