Living in Taiwan during the 1980s would have been a turbulent prospect for anyone, let alone a trio of hormonally-piqued, politically invigorated teenagers struggling to come to terms with burgeoning adulthood and their own sexual dynamic. The country's dictatorial single-party system was being meaningfully opposed for the first time in its 35-year reign and martial law, which quashed sedition and protest with an iron fist up to this point, was beginning to crumble under the overwhelming voice of a people no longer willing to live under tyranny.
Adventurous, idealistic youngsters like Mabel (Gwei Lun Mei) and Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan) embrace this opportunity to stand up against the disciplinarians who run their high school as something closer to an army boot camp than a place of learning. Using their connections at the school magazine, they slip subversive material into the pages of what is supposed to be pro-KMT propaganda, shave their heads in defiance of the tightly controlled establishment and generally thumb their noses at the authorities whenever the opportunity takes them. While Aaron makes no secret of his love for Mabel, she only has eyes for unassuming swimming champ, Liam (Joseph Chang), who happily tags along for the ride.
As school breaks for the summer, the trio get closer still, but it soon becomes apparent that Liam's affections lie not with Mabel, but with the blissfully unaware Aaron. So as not to break up the group, Mabel acquiesces to Aaron's advances and the three friends head for university, where Aaron becomes increasingly active in Taipei's escalating political movement against the ruling Kuomintang party. The recognition, fame and attention that follows him ultimately puts a strain on his relationship with Mabel, and as their bond weakens, Liam finds himself further untangled from both sides.
The belated follow-up to director Yang Ya Che's 2008 debut Orz Boyz, GF*BF is for the most part an absorbing and heartfelt examination of three individuals who have allowed their friendship and affection for each other to grow so strong over a period of many years that they have lost sight of the boundaries that normal couples, both platonic and romantic, must observe to avoid conflict. The always etherial Gwei Lun Mei strikes an excellent balance as Mabel, between the determined, inspired student activist and the beautiful young woman caught between two wildly different men, who might possibly end up together.
Rhydian Vaughan, best known for his role in Doze Niu's Monga, is perfectly suited to Aaron's flippant, ballsy opportunist, whose heart never seems invested in the political agenda of the moment so much as the more immediate anarchy of fighting the system. While he clearly loves Mabel and has a warm affection for Liam, it's the attention that drives him and he is inevitably drawn to whomever offers him the most. Joseph Chang (Au Revoir Taipei) is also incredibly sympathetic as Liam, the strong silent type who enburdens himself with a secret he is never willing to reveal, let alone act upon. All three of them depend on each other's friendship to carry them through these difficult periods in their life, but at the cost of all their happiness and much heartbreak.
For a film that appears to be so overtly political, it is these central relationships that really make the film worth watching. The upheavals that disrupt the country are really nothing more than a backdrop for the more personal conflicts between Mabel, Aaron and Liam, which could be seamlessly transplanted into almost any other setting without having any real negative impact on the story. That said, when the film enters its final third, and democracy changes the country into a place of relative calm and growing affluence, GF*BF quickly becomes less interesting. This is perhaps also due to the characters' evolution at this stage, and their unwillingness to behave as compulsively as we have seen them do in their youth, but it results in the film ending with something of a whimper, rather than the youthful exuberance that resonates through the majority of this impressively played three-hander.
GF*BF opens the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival 2012 tonight.