Film Review: 'Mama Boy'

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AMP by Adriana Rosati

A gentle tale of growing pains and self-discovery, “Mama Boy”, Arvin Chen’s third feature film, presents itself as a comedy, with a lurid poster and an odd-looking protagonist but it turns out to be more than the sum of its parts.


Xiao-hong (Kai Ko) is the classic mama boy, a cocooned young man of almost 30 years of age, with an overprotective mother, but to call him a spoiled boy would sound too derogatory as he is a sweet human being, almost a child in a man’s body, struggling in relating with fellow humans, especially girls. “A bit shy”, his mum would say. “Not normal”, her bitter co-worker would reply. Xiao-hong works with his pesky cousin in a fish and aquarium store; wearing the shop bright orange polo shirt, he looks like a giant goldfish, big eyes wide open and silent mouth. His mum Meiling (Yu Tzu-yu) is quite a complex character as well; while on one hand she would like to control every single action of the poor man, on the other she realizes he cannot stay at home with her (and on her) forever. He needs to find a mum-approved girlfriend. But her attempts of setting him up with friends’ daughters fail miserably when Xiao-hong behaves as if the girls are aliens from another planet.


One day, his cousin decides to take him to a hotel where a mysterious Sister Lele (Vivian Hsu) runs a prostitution business, determined to give Xiao-hong the chance of losing his virginity. Reluctant Xiao-hong is introduced to a girl and, unsurprisingly, he runs away after less than a minute. But something has happened to him; it’s Sister Lele who has caught Xiao-hong’s attention and in the following days he starts to go with a certain frequency to the brothel, even just to catch a glimpse of her. Sister Lele is a single mum with a son (Fandy Fan) of Xiao-hong’s age who got himself in trouble and owes a big sum to loan sharks. Their relationship is complicated, he feels ignored by her, while she is not sure if stepping in would really help him to grow up. Meantime, Xiao-hong and Lele start to see each other more and more, spending evenings drinking, talking and dancing in an old fashion night club over the notes of Anita Mui’s song “Intimate Lover”. Inexorably comes the time when Xiao-hong’s mum and Lele’s son find out what is going on, and that is a big-time wake-up call for everybody.


Different mothers and different sons are crossing paths, switching roles and learning from each other in this intelligent comedy/romance that looks into late development and the lovingly toxic grasp that mothers have on their male offspring. And it does so with wit and no judgments or finger pointing, just leaving the clever plot roll. Its slow peace doesn’t dilute the comedy and the feelings, instead, it lightens them with a soft warm glow. Details scattered here and there reveal something about each character; hints, whispers, never shouts. For example, we “sense”, not learn, that Meiling has been alone for a long time (the film leaves that unexplained) and probably her control over Xiao-hong is her own lifeline. We also sense the complexity of Sister Lele’s feelings towards her son, her pinch of guilt observing how gentle and thoughtful Xiao-hong is, as a product of a more protective mother than herself.


Measure and lightness of touch is a strong point here; the characters never derail into stereotypical one-dimension portraits despite a subject that would allow it easily. Kai Ko is excellent in the (big) shoes of introverted Xiao-hong, his physical stance seems to perfectly embody the embarrassment and the unease of having to carry around a physical body when the mind struggles to follow it with confidence. Funnily, in another recent film “Grit” the Taiwanese actor plays a similar part in an awkward and clumsy romance with a mature woman. Playing Xiao-hong, he is able to change our perception of the character just using a faint half-smile, showing how much wit and sensitivity is hiding behind his dumb appearance.


His counterpart, Sister Lele, played by an excellent Vivian Hsu is also a very well-conceived character and their chemistry on screen makes their romance believable. Far from the usual brothel maîtresse standard image, she is sexy without showing an inch of fishnet tights, her masculine trousers and oversized shirts, her rebel, low-maintenance hair, a touch of red lipstick, speak tons about her past, her disenchantment and her ill-concealed warmth. Kudos to the costume and hair departments that worked their magic, and also came up with Xiao-hong’s orange polo shirt, a great way to making him stand up as a sore thumb against grey “normality”. The luminous photography by Jake Pollock gives the story the look of a magical dream, as if already processed by Xiao-hong’s memory and ready to be treasured for ever in his heart.


All the character at the end of the film have learned a lesson, they have changed and are all ready to step forward, making “Mama Boy” an utterly satisfying view. With its vein of melancholy this quirky comedy / romance, touches a chord; it was a refreshing surprise of the Udine Far East Film Festival.