In Dear Ex, Jay copes with the aftermath of his ex's death.

In the Taiwanese movie Dear Ex, the gay main character is in mourning after his lover passed away. He spends time with his partner’s vengeful ex-wife and rebellious teenage son, forming complicated relationships with them. The three of them must navigate their trauma while dealing with resentment, rage, and confusion.

Despite the heavy subject matter, Dear Ex is not a typical tearjerker movie about grief and loss. It successfully balances the melancholy with a quirky and offbeat tone, almost defiant in its irreverent approach towards death. Although the characters are deeply flawed, they go on nuanced journeys that unfold with sophisticated emotions.

Dear Ex Summary

What is the original name?

誰先愛上他的

When was the movie released?

2018

Where was the movie made?

Taiwan

What is the language used in the movie?

Mandarin

What is the movie’s genre?

Romance

How would you describe the movie?

Sad and bittersweet

How long is the movie?

Around 1 hour and 45 minutes

Is it based on a novel?

No, it’s an original story

Plot

San-lian is outraged by her ex-husband's gay lover.

San-lian is a single mother with a teenage son, Cheng-xi. Her ex-husband Zheng-yuan is a university professor who recently passed away after losing a battle to cancer. Before his death, Zheng-yuan changed his insurance beneficiary to his gay lover Jay. San-lian is outraged that her family won’t receive any inheritance from her ex-husband. She pesters Jay to make him feel guilty so that he’d give up his stake in the insurance payout.

San-lian accuses Jay of seducing her husband for money. The truth is that Jay didn’t know he had become the insurance beneficiary. He finds San-lian annoying and tries his best to ignore her harassment. Jay continues to live his life normally, resuming work as a stage actor as he prepares for an upcoming play. Although Jay puts on a brave face and doesn’t react to his partner’s death, his colleagues are worried about him.

Over time, the relationship between San-lian and her son worsens. Cheng-xi is a rebellious teenager who clashes with his overbearing mother. After a massive argument, Cheng-xi runs away from home and goes to stay with Jay instead. Although he is not welcomed, the stubborn teenager begins living with Jay in his tiny and messy apartment. Cheng-xi learns more about his father’s lover, discovering the tragic circumstances of their romance.

San-lian is devastated when her son moves in to live with Jay. She considers it a betrayal, as if Cheng-xi is siding with the enemy. She tries to convince her son to come back home, but he won’t listen to her. Afterwards, San-lian visits Jay’s apartment regularly. She cooks meals, cleans up the apartment, and performs household chores to make her son’s stay more bearable.

Jay barely puts up with this intrusive mother-and-son duo. He insists the two of them should take their drama elsewhere and leave him alone. Nonetheless, San-lian and Cheng-xi continue to hover around him. The three characters soon become intertwined in each other’s lives, forming complex and unconventional relationship dynamics.

Dear Ex Trailer

Dear Ex Cast

Characters

Jay Roy Chiu (邱澤) Roy Chiu Instagram

Jay is portrayed by the actor Jay Roy Chiu (邱澤).

Jay is a quirky and irreverent theatre actor whose partner Zheng-yuan recently passed away from cancer. Although he is in mourning, Jay puts on a brave face and tries to carry on life as usual. He is adamant about performing in a play, which Zheng-yuan worked on before his death. Jay is a slob and doesn’t bother to clean up his messy apartment.

San-lian Ying-Hsuan Hsieh (謝盈萱) Ying-xuan Hsieh Instagram

San-lian is portrayed by the actress Ying-Hsuan Hsieh (謝盈萱).

San-lian is the ex-wife of Zheng-yuan. She is furious after finding out her dead ex-husband changed the insurance beneficiary to Jay instead. San-lian’s pushy and aggressive personality has alienated her from her son. They are constantly feuding, and their relationship grows worse when Cheng-xi takes Jay’s side over his mother.

Cheng-xi Joseph Huang (黃聖球) Joseph Huang Instagram

Cheng-xi is portrayed by the actor Joseph Huang (黃聖球).

Cheng-xi is the stubborn and rebellious teenage son of Zheng-yuan. He doesn’t understand why his father left their family for a man and initially blames Jay for being a homewrecker. Cheng-xi has a terrible relationship with his overbearing mother. He eventually moves in with Jay to avoid his mom.

Supporting Cast

Zheng-yuan is portrayed by the actor Spark Chen (陳如山).

Zheng-yuan

Spark Chen (陳如山)

Jay's mom is portrayed by the actress Ai-Lun Kao (高愛倫).

Jay’s mom

Ai-Lun Kao (高愛倫)

The therapist is portrayed by the actress Wanfang Lin (林萬芳).

Therapist

Wanfang Lin (林萬芳)

Cast highlights

  • The Dear Ex cast received critical acclaimed for their acting performances. San-lian’s actress (Ying-Hsuan Hsieh) won recognition as Best Leading Actress in the 2018 Golden Horse Awards. In addition, the other two actors (Roy Chiu and Joseph Huang) were nominated for their respective categories as Lead Actor and Best New Performer.
  • The actor portraying Zheng-yuan (Spark Chen) had a role in the 2019 Taiwanese BL drama, HIStory 3: Make Our Days Count. He played the main character’s father in this series.

Dear Ex Review

Review

Movie Review Score: 7.5

B-
Story

★★★☆

Romance

★☆☆☆

Acting

★★★★

Ending

★★★☆

Jay is annoyed when the ex-wife and the teenage son intrude on his life.

You may have noticed the parallels between Dear Ex and Dear Tenant, another Taiwanese movie I reviewed recently. Besides their similar English titles, both are award-winning films with the gay lead mourning his deceased lover. Where they differ is the interpretation. While Dear Tenant lays it on thick with the excessive melodrama, Dear Ex is perky, offbeat, and almost defiant of death. Even though their stories might be alike, you’ll experience two remarkably different journeys about bereavement.

At its core, Dear Ex is a tragic movie that explores grief, trauma, and loss. However, the sad story is packaged beneath a quirky dramedy exterior, narrated by a snarky teenage protagonist. While the events are devastating, the film maintains a flippant attitude and never dwells on the negativity for too long. As a result, Dear Ex doesn’t feel that depressing despite its heavy subject matter. It’s still a tearjerker, but without trying too hard to pull at your heartstrings.

All three characters in Dear Ex are traumatized, each suffering from the recent loss of their lover, husband, or father. However, they don’t mope around wallowing in misery. Instead, they lash out angrily at each other. Cheng-xi antagonizes his mother, whereas San-lian harasses her spouse’s secret gay boyfriend. Meanwhile, Jay punishes himself the most, pretending to be strong and carries on normally without addressing his heartbreak. However, you can tell he’s paralyzed by sorrow, unwilling to face the present reality after Zheng-yuan’s death.

While I acknowledge their unfortunate circumstances, the characters come across as too annoying sometimes. As the tension escalates, I don’t find the overbearing mom or the belligerent son that sympathetic. Jay is a likable figure, but he gets eclipsed by the ongoing family drama around him. At times, the ex-wife feels like the real star of this movie, stealing focus from the gay lead. Dear Ex fleshes out her character nicely, but it seems more interested in telling her story than his.

The romance is sanitized. Although Jay and Zheng-yuan share a tender bond, the movie is shy about showing passion between them. The only gay kiss is censored and the courtship scenes lack seduction. Most of their relationship flashbacks tend to be dramatic or tragic, but few are actually sweet and affectionate. Since their love story is so vague, it weakens the emotional impact of the movie. Some powerful moments fall flat because I’m not engaged enough with the couple.

Fortunately, Dear Ex is compensated by stellar acting performances along with solid production values. It also has a satisfying ending with an optimistic message. I enjoy the hopefulness that the conclusion brings, like a ray of sunshine coming after a storm. Overall, I have a positive reception to this unique, polished, and well-rounded movie. However, it’s held back by some shortcomings and doesn’t leave a lasting impression on me. My final assessment is that I enjoy Dear Ex, but you won’t find it on my list of favourite films.

Story review

Good story
Cheng-xi gets therapy after his father's death.

Although he only appears in flashbacks, Zheng-yuan is the central figure of Dear Ex. The story revolves around him, exploring all the broken hearts that he left behind after his death. This movie focuses on the three people most affected by his passing: his secret lover Jay, his ex-wife San-lian, and his son Cheng-xi.

The film is narrated by its moody teenage protagonist Cheng-xi in a snarky and irreverent tone. He tries to understand why his cancer-ridden father left the family to spend his remaining days with a secret gay lover. At first, Cheng-xi has a poor opinion of Jay, perceiving him as a homewrecker. As they hang out more, Cheng-xi learns Jay’s perspective and slowly warms up to him.

Despite dealing with death, divorce, and repressed sexuality, Dear Ex never feels too depressing. What I appreciate about this movie is its levity, keeping the tragic melodrama at a moderate level. The characters might be traumatized after Zheng-yuan’s death, but life goes on for them and they don’t wallow in grief. While the story isn’t exactly comedic or lighthearted, it’s easier to watch than expected. Dear Ex can be poignant and sentimental without being overwrought.

Zheng-yuan
Zheng-yuan smiles as he gives a toy car to his son.

On paper, Zheng-yuan is a pretty despicable character. He’s a closeted gay man who abandoned his boyfriend to marry a woman. He deceived his wife and deliberately entered a loveless marriage. Afterwards, he deserted his family (including his teenage son) to spend time with a gay lover. Judging from his actions alone, Zheng-yuan seemed like a total cad, unworthy of our sympathy.

However, let’s consider his circumstances:

  • Zheng-yuan repressed his sexuality because he was desperate to fit into society’s norms. He got married, had a son, and kept up a lifelong façade.
  • It took a terminal illness for him to acknowledge that he wasn’t happy with this life. His dying wish was to live honestly as a gay man, because he didn’t want to spend his final days lying to himself.
  • Jay stayed by his side and took care of the sickly Zheng-yuan. However, their time together transitioned from wheelchairs to hospital beds to operating rooms. Their reunion wasn’t a joyous celebration, that’s for sure.

As we learn more about Zheng-yuan, the overpowering emotion that I feel is pity. I see a dying man who led a life of regrets. He was ashamed, repressed, and unfulfilled. Zheng-yuan hurt the people around him, but the person who suffered the most pain and anguish is himself. In the last few moments before his death, I wondered if he found any salvation in the end. Or did he die with sorrow in his heart, wishing that he could have handled his relationships differently?

Romance review

Jay and Zheng-yuan
The Jay and Zheng-yuan kiss was censored.

Jay was treated terribly by his ex-boyfriend, who broke up with him to marry a woman. Based on their unamicable history, Jay had every right to cut ties and never let Zheng-yuan into his life again. Yet, he forgave his ex, stayed by his side, and took care of a dying man during his final days. Beneath all his bravado, Jay is a sweet, loyal, and compassionate guy. Zheng-yuan didn’t deserve his kindness, but Jay proved that their love was unconditional.

The Jay and Zheng-yuan love story should have been epic, but it plays out very cautiously in the movie. Although we see glimpses of their time together through flashbacks, I don’t sense enough passion between them. For a tragic romance, there’s definitely more emphasis on the tragedy than the romance. Their bond feels undeveloped and I am not engaged by this couple. 

And oh my god, the censored kiss is really annoying. Just when the characters lean in for a kiss, this display of affection is deliberately obstructed. I suspect the relationship scenes got downplayed, because the storyteller didn’t want to make the film too gay for a mainstream moviegoing audience. The romance feels timid and sanitized, which I don’t enjoy as a BL watcher.

Jay
Jay calls Zhengyuan's family when he is about to pass away.

After his ex’s death, Jay pretends to live normally. Instead of sobbing or sulking, he puts on a brave face and hardly shows any emotion. However, there are obvious signs of his lingering trauma. He still uses the same ringtone with Zheng-yuan’s voice. He doesn’t tidy up the apartment, leaving all his lover’s mementos untouched. There’s even a scene where he visits the hospital in a daze, intending to visit Zheng-yuan, except his boyfriend is already dead.

Everything indicates that Jay is deeply paralyzed by grief, unable to move forward without Zheng-yuan in his life. However, he compartmentalizes his emotions and avoids addressing his heartbreak directly. Instead, Jay transfers all his energy into the amateur theatre play, which he takes way too seriously. Not even a broken leg can deter him from performing on stage.

Jay finally finds closure after performing the play, unleashing all the powerful feelings he bottled up inside himself. Since Zheng-yuan’s death, Jay put on a performance to convince the world that he wasn’t in mourning. As the play ends, it’s a symbolic moment that signals to Jay he can stop acting now. It’s okay, you don’t need to pretend anymore. You can drop the bravado, cry your eyes out, and process your grief.

San-lian
Sanlian suffers being a single widowed mother after her husband left.

Despite her sympathetic circumstances, I found San-lian to be an obnoxious and overbearing character. From her helicopter parenting to her harassment towards Jay, she conducted herself so unpleasantly that I didn’t want to take her side. It’s no wonder Zheng-yuan left his insufferable wife and went back to his hot gay lover instead. Understandably, he didn’t want to be near this screeching nightmare during his final days on earth. 🙉

On a certain level, I empathize with San-lian’s hardships and can understand her fury. She’s a scorned woman who couldn’t lash out at her dead husband, so Jay seems like an easy target. Outing him was a low move, done out of pettiness and desperation. Yet, she appeared mentally spent and pushed to the edge, so I can almost cut her some slack.

As much as she irks me, San-lian is the most nuanced character in the movie. Dear Ex does a great job with her characterization, showing us the many facets of her personality. Although she antagonizes Jay, San-lian is not the villain in this story. She’s a devoted single mom, a heartbroken widow, and a confused wife trying to understand why her husband didn’t love her. Was their marriage a sham? Did he even love her? Or did she spend nearly two decades living in a lie?

San-lian and Zheng-yuan
San-lian can't accept that her husband left her for another man.

Cheng-xi mocks his mother for playing the victim, but the truth is that San-lian has been wronged terribly. She was deceived by a man who wasted her youth. Then, he didn’t even have the decency to leave her with money after his death. I understand why she felt upset about Jay being made the insurance beneficiary. She was married to Zheng-yuan for over a decade, raising a child together. If my ex-husband screwed me over like that, I’d be pissed off too.

San-lian was already under a lot of stress after her husband’s death. Cheng-xi adds more burden for his grieving mom by behaving like a pain in the ass. When he moved in with Jay, it was like rubbing salt onto her wound. First, her husband leaves for another man. Now, she’s abandoned by her son too. All the men in San-lian’s life end up betraying her, and it’s devastating to watch.

Acting review

Great acting
Zheng-yuan cries after Jay threatens to cut his hair.

There are some excellent acting performances in Dear Ex. All three main cast members were nominated for the 2018 Golden Horse Awards. San-lian’s actress (Ying-Hsuan Hsieh) even won in her category. I thought her victory was well-deserved. She offered a nuanced portrayal with the complex character of San-lian, showcasing an inner strength and an emotional vulnerability.

However, my favourite performance actually comes from Zheng-yuan’s actor (Spark Chen). During a flashback, his character was losing his hair due to chemotherapy. He feels defeated and mutters, “It’s better for me to be dead.” Jay starts chopping off his own hair, which makes Zheng-yuan even more upset. He starts crying and begs his boyfriend to stop. During that moment, I thought the actor really captured the heartbreaking emotions of his character. His devastation felt so raw and authentic.

Dear Ex Ending Explained

Ending

Emotional ending

Jay flashes a smile after performing the play.

On the day of his theatre performance, Jay gets violently attacked by his loan sharks and his leg gets broken severely. Cheng-xi calls his mom for help and they take Jay to the hospital. Jay’s leg is put into a cast and he can barely move without pain. However, he insists on going to his performance. He exclaims, “I’m going on stage, even if it kills me!” As such, Cheng-xi and San-lian accompany him to the theatre.

The play didn’t go smoothly, since Jay had a difficult time moving around in a wheelchair. There were also very few people in attendance. Nonetheless, Jay persevered through the pain and finished his performance. As San-lian watched him struggle on stage, she realized today is the 100th day since her husband passed away. She connected the dots and realized this play was a tribute to Zhang-yuan. That’s why Jay took it so seriously and couldn’t miss the performance even with a broken leg.

Jay’s mom

Jay cries after performing his play in the Dear Ex ending.

After the play was over, Jay’s mom showed up to congratulate her son. Previously, San-lian outed Jay to his mother as a revenge tactic. However, the mom still arrives to see the theatre play, showing that she loves her son regardless of his sexuality. It’s a poignant scene where the characters don’t exchange a single line of dialogue. Instead, they give each other an emotional hug, as Jay sobs uncontrollably into his mom’s embrace.

The movie ends with Cheng-xi moving in back with his mother. They decide to stay out of Jay’s life and don’t bother him again. The good news is that Cheng-xi and San-lian have a much better relationship with each other now. They can talk lightheartedly and exchange playful banter. The final scene features the mother-son duo singing the same song that Jay performed in his play.

Insurance beneficiary

Jay takes care of Zheng-yuan after he got sick.

We find out that Jay owes a lot of money. He has taken out loans to pay off Zheng-yuan’s hospital bills, including a liver transplant. Unfortunately, the surgery failed and his lover still died a month later. That’s why Zheng-yuan made him the insurance beneficiary, because he knows Jay spent his life’s savings to take care of him.

Jay could have told San-lian that he needed this insurance money when they first met. However, in typical Jay fashion, he pretended everything was okay even as his debts mounted. When San-lian misunderstood his intentions, he wouldn’t share his side of the story or clarify the situation. Instead, he let San-lian think the worst of him, like some evil gay harlot who tempted her husband for his money. In reality, Jay was Zheng-yuan’s devoted caregiver who endured the worst of his health burdens.

Why didn’t he tell the truth? Partially, Jay might have felt guilty, like he didn’t deserve the insurance money over Zheng-yuan’s family. Perhaps Jay wanted to spare San-lian and Cheng-xi the heartbreak of the failed surgery. During a flashback, we saw him in the hospital, where his body was stained with blood. He purposely concealed how much Zheng-yuan’s health had deteriorated, not wanting inflict more grief onto San-lian or Cheng-xi.

Ending explained

After San-lian discovers Jay’s financial troubles come from the hospital bills, it marks a turning point in their relationship. San-lian lets go of her grudge and stops fighting for the insurance. Unlike her original assumptions, she realizes Jay isn’t a golddigger who seduced her husband for the money. She knows his love is genuine and understands that he needs the money more urgently than her.

San-lian sees Jay in a new light, realizing the depth of his love for her ex-husband. This man loved Zheng-yuan so much that he went into debt at a chance to save his partner’s life. All along, San-lian wondered why her husband left her for another man. Now, she has her answer. The bond Jay and Zheng-yuan shared wasn’t a frivolous fling or a meaningless affair. Instead, San-lian can confirm these two loved each other deeply and profoundly. It gives San-lian perspective as she gains much-needed closure over her divorce.

Ironically, San-lian becomes happier without the money, like a burden has been lifted. A positive change is that San-lian has an improved relationship with her son. We see her buying him fried food, a small gesture with a significant meaning. She used to be strict about eating healthy, but now she’s more relaxed and easygoing. Cheng-xi sees that his mom is making an effort to change, so he also tries to be friendlier. It’s a happy ending for both characters, as they enjoy their fresh start after learning to let go of past resentments.

Dear Ex Behind the Scenes

Dear Ex Online

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