The coming-of-age story is warm and subdued

The second annual 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15 to July 31. For more informations on lineup and screenings, click here

If Mama Boy had nothing else to recommend it, it would at least deserve credit for the lead performance of Kai Ko. As the titular boy, he takes a role that, if handled wrong, could be actively painful to watch, and imbues it with sympathy and warmth, even as he makes it all too clear how his awkwardness has socially crippled him.

Xiao Hong (Ko) is a 30-year old who lives with his doting mother and is shy to the point of being practically nonverbal around the opposite sex. His mother (Yu Tzu-yu), loving yet controlling, is determined to marry him off despite his clear discomfort with her constant setups.

His slightly more extroverted cousin, after hearing about Xiao’s latest disaster of a date, decides to treat him to a sex worker for his birthday, which goes roughly as well as you’d expect. But in the process, Xiao has a slightly less awkward conversation than usual with the madam of the establishment, Lele (Vivian Hsu). “Sparks fly” would be overselling it by a fair margin, but Xiao Hong is unquestionably smitten. And for once, our terminally passive hero is inspired to take action.

The dynamic between Xiao Hong and Lele is the axis on which the entire film pivots, and Ko and Hsu manage to conjure an unexpectedly poignant chemistry. Xiao Hong, infatuated but unsure of how to make his approach, spends night after night in the company of sex worker Apple, who is overjoyed to get money for nothing. Slowly but surely, he works up the nerve to make a move, and from there, something like a low-key love story more or less begins.

As good as Ko is, Hsu matches him beat for beat, radiating an almost overwhelming sense of resigned weariness and the slow blossoming of a hesitant sort of joy at encountering something new and unexpected. In the attentions of this slightly odd but very sweet young man, her performance is diffused with an underlying awareness of the fleeting nature of happiness.

She tries to resist, but perhaps not as much as she should.

It’s not a love triangle, but there is of course a third component to this dynamic: that of the blissfully ignorant mother, increasingly puzzled at her son’s ever increasing sense of independence. Surprisingly, Mama isn’t quite the presence one might expect, though her influence is obviously felt even when she’s not around. But we don’t necessarily get much insight into her interiority; sometimes she comes dangerously close to being a bit of a cartoon. Still, Yu Tzu-yu works very well with what she’s been given, and ultimately stays on the right side of caricature.

In the end, there’s a certain sense of inevitability to how the story plays out, but that’s safe to say of romantic comedy in general. The pleasures of Mama Boy are in its sense of reticence. The chemistry between Ko and Hsu is warm, sweet, and pleasingly subdued. Director Arvin Chen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sunny Yu, never pushes too hard or gets heavy-handed when a lighter touch will do. Though the third act contains a sense of writerly construction in the way certain pieces slot into place, for the most part, the filmmakers wisely get out of the way of the performers and let them lead the way.

As I was watching Mama Boy, I kept waiting for them to take a wrong step, to undo the gentle balance of laughter and melancholy that made the film such an endearing watch. But it never happened; up until the final moments (which were a bit predictable, perhaps, but also well-earned), Mama Boy was nothing less than an absolute pleasure to experience.

The 20th annual New York Asian Film Festival takes place from July 15th to July 31st.

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