FEATURE/Marry My Dead Body: So much more than just a gay romance
By Evelyn Yang, CNA staff writer
"If same-sex couples can get married in this world, then those of us in the underworld should be able to as well!" This is just one of the many lines from "Marry My Dead Body" (關於我和鬼變成家人的那件事), a recently released Taiwanese Netflix hit, that had the audience in stitches.
Directed by Cheng Wei-hao (程偉豪) and featuring several young and up-and-coming actors including Hsu Kuang-han (許光漢), Austin Lin (林柏宏) and Wang Jing (王淨), the movie tells the story of an unlikely marriage between a living and a dead person.
One of the main characters, policeman Wu Ming-han (吳明翰), who is homophobic and ghost-phobic, accidentally picks up a red wedding envelope while searching for evidence for a drug dealing case and is forced to tie the knot with ghost Mao Pang-yu (毛邦羽), a gay man who died in mysterious circumstances.
Together the two are forced to work through their differences and find a way to solve the case and for Mao to reincarnate.
The drama/mystery film, which was adapted from an award-winning story discovered in a local screenplay competition, gained traction in cinemas in February and on Netflix in August, and has been selected as Taiwan's submission for the Best International Feature Film category at the 2024 Academy Awards.
The film is also leading in the Golden Horse Awards race this year, boasting eight nominations, including for best narrative feature, best director, best adapted screenplay and two best leading actor nods.
The playwright, Wu Chin-jung (吳瑾蓉), told CNA in a recent interview that she never thought the film would cover such a wide range of topics, for example, LGBTQ issues, ghost marriage and police investigations into drug dealers, but that she and her crew had managed to make it work.
Responding to the film being selected to represent Taiwan on a global stage, Wu expressed her joy and said that "through the film, the world will, at last, be able to get to know the real Taiwan."
"In the past, most films representing Taiwan in award ceremonies had sad storylines, but 'Marry My Dead Body' is a comedy and combines lots of Taiwanese elements," Wu said.
A surprising twist
The film is definitely Wu's most well-known piece of work, but the 39-year-old also has a decade of experience working in the film industry, including as part of the production team for the Taiwanese TV series "In a Good Way" (我的自由年代), "A Hint of You" (美味的想念) and her semi-biographical stage show "Roommates" (單身租隊友).
She says she is optimistic and tries to write stories with happy endings, as she did with "Marry My Dead Body."
While recalling her journey writing the screenplay, Wu said it took around three years to write and edit the script, but that she was delighted with the result.
"It occurred to me that I should try to make the script for 'Marry My Dead Body' 'edgier' because that's sometimes how you get a laugh out of an audience."
Wu went on to say that "playwrights can sometimes have an instinct as to what a story should look like, but then, sometimes, they have to switch things around."
For example, she said that it took her a while to decide who would pick up the red envelope and pair up with Mao. After much pondering she had the idea that a straight policeman would be perfect.
"What could be more interesting than making a heterosexual, homophobic guy the lead role who marries a deceased gay man?" Wu laughed.
However, despite the film being highly popular, Wu said some people thought the way some characters were presented and treated by others was too stereotypical.
For example, regarding the gay characters, the particular scenes that were criticized included the film's opening when the police were investigating a gay drug dealer hiding in a gym, and a scene where a group of gay men get drunk and gather in a gay bar.
Others felt that the personalities of the main characters were either too masculine or too feminine.
"Stereotypes are formed by what people say," Wu said.
"The way gay people are spoken to in the film is actually how some people talk in real life," she said, for example, during her field research, she heard one police officer say: "What can gay guys even f**king do apart from taking drugs?"
Wu added that based on her research with lots of police, it's not just gay men who face discrimination, but also women, who are often regarded as weaker than their male counterparts and thought of as just "pretty faces," rather than as the experienced and skilled officers that they are.
"In the film, they are seen pinning flowers to male officers during official ceremonies instead of doing real police work," Wu said. "That's why I wanted to include that in the plot; I want to help bring these issues to light."
It all comes down to love
However, the playwright said she put a lot of effort into articulating the struggles between family members in the plot, and also how they support each other.
Relationships between family members have always moved her, and this led her to incorporate the anecdotes and life experiences of herself, friends and interviewees into the film, she said.
According to Wu, family challenges were mainly presented through Mao's character arc. His father intervened to help Mao escape a toxic relationship, but Mao perceived this as another sign that his father did not accept his gay identity.
This perception was heightened by the father's inability to express love for his son, Wu said.
The misunderstandings between father and son were not resolved until Wu -- the other male lead -- became Mao's "human husband" and helped Mao communicate his thoughts and feelings with his father.
"Some LGBTQ people have never been accepted by their family members, with some punished and berated for acting "unnaturally," Wu wrote on social media earlier this year after the release of the film.
"Everyone wants to be loved, but people often express love in the wrong way."
Complicated connections between people and their loved ones therefore became a key theme of the film. "Love is what connects us all," Wu said. "I know it's a cliché, but it's powerful. That is why I want to talk about love in a broader sense."
Films should connect us
Speaking of their role in society, Wu said she thought the role of film was "to connect those who may otherwise remain divided."
She cited an example that lots of people had brought along their parents to see "Marry My Dead Body," which had successfully sparked conversations about gender issues.
It's important that people find ways to communicate with different groups of people, Wu said, adding that "films can help people see what they were previously blind to."
She believed her film helped to raise key issues in Taiwan, such as same-sex marriage (that was legalized in 2019) and the #MeToo movement that swept the country this year, Wu said.
However, the polarized opinions that continue to divide Taiwanese society should be further addressed, she contended. "Now that same-sex marriage in Taiwan has been legal for some time, people should be thinking, 'what's next?'"
"Taiwan's film industry has moved forwards in ways that were inconceivable a decade ago," Wu said. "If those who are dedicated to the industry persist for another 10 years, I believe we can achieve great things."
For now, Wu said she is continuing to work on more stories about topics she cares about, such as education and animal protection, in order to raise awareness.
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