A light but pleasant YA romance, Love in Taipei adapts the coming-of-age novel Loveboat, Taipei, the first in an ongoing series by Abigail Hing Wen. Like the book, the movie follows Taiwanese American high school senior Ever Wong as she attends a prestigious summer academy for eight weeks in Taiwan, before joining a pre-med college program back in the States. However, director Arvin Chen and screenwriters Mackenzie Dohr and Charlie Oh depart from some of the novel’s darker and more tragic events, maintaining an upbeat optimism. This makes the movie version more of an escape than a rigorous confrontation of self, but it remains a constant comedic delight for nearly all of its 95 minutes, which kick off with not one, but two different meet-cutes.
The film wields its Asian culture of choice with a far more deft and careful hand than some recent Asian American peers—the likes of Joy Ride, which reduces China and Korea to passing backdrops, and A Tourist’s Guide to Love, which does the same to Vietnam. In Love In Taipei, Taiwan is neither an imposing mystery, nor a hefty emotional talisman that characters carry around their necks. When the movie opens, academically inclined homebody Ever (Ashley Liao) has already arrived in Taipei City for the summer, cutting short the need for overly familiar conversations about hesitance or reluctance. Instead, she wears these feelings on her face, as her voiceover—from some unseen, post-college vantage a few years in the future—recollects the familial tensions underlying this journey. She’s a stranger to Taipei and grew up in a mostly white town, so her summer program serves as a vital crossroads. She takes this trip at the behest of her parents, who she feels have too much of a say in molding her future (her father was once a doctor in Taiwan, a path he hopes she’ll follow in the United States), though she would rather tape and submit a ballet audition to a prestigious dance school, unbeknownst to her mom and dad.
The film wields its Asian culture of choice with a far more deft and careful hand than some recent Asian American peers...Taiwan is neither an imposing mystery, nor a hefty emotional talisman that characters carry around their necks.
In this regard, Taiwan starts out as a symbol for the cultural rigidity Ever perceives, but the shy teenager quickly has her expectations turned upside down. The Compatriot Youth Taiwan Study Tour—which Wen herself attended, a cultural immersion program for overseas Chinese and Taiwanese teens—turns out to be nicknamed the “Loveboat,” given its reputation for hormonal teenagers hooking up and slipping out to nightclubs. Ever’s roommate is the bubbly, outgoing Sophie Ha (Chelsea Zhang), who spryly introduces herself as “Sophie Ha, as in ‘Ha Ha!’” and whose attractive, overachieving cousin Rick Woo (Ross Butler) immediately catches Ever’s gaze. They slowly help pull Ever out of her shell, but she’s also drawn to a more quiet and mysterious student, the artsy and laid back Xavier Yeh (Nico Hiraga).
At first, this triangular dynamic—the kind seen in dozens of teenage rom coms—maps perfectly onto Ever’s existing dilemma: one crush represents the stringent academic image her parents have in mind, while the other symbolizes freedom and self-expression. However, this proves a little more complicated once Rick's and Xavier’s respective family dynamics come to the fore (bringing with them some class-centric complications), and once Sophie begins crushing on Xavier as well. Rather than using either boy as an embodiment of Ever’s cultural journey, they instead become extensions of it—ongoing hurdles for her to navigate—as she also gets to know her maternal aunt, Shu (Cindy Cheung), an open-minded, possibly queer visual artist in Taipei. Her life has deviated significantly from her sister’s, as a free-spirit who travels the world, and her initial advice to Ever sets the tone for the entire film. While Ever learns dumpling-making and Chinese calligraphy in the classroom, Shu tells her that real culture is experienced by living, prompting Ever and her new friends to wander the city’s streets and night markets, and eventually, go on dates to local eateries. While the focus remains almost entirely on American characters, the film still approaches Taipei as a real place, with a real identity that intersects with Ever’s.
Her “glow-up” moment when she finds her confidence isn’t a radical outward makeover, but rather, an adjustment to the way she already dresses...She doesn’t change who she is, but rather, how she carries herself, an idea few films in this genre have so precisely captured.
All the while, as the kids sneak past the academy’s guards in some delightfully energetic scenes—the dialogue delivery is snappy; the blocking and editing is watertight—the film takes on a carefree quality. Its drama is born not from traditional notions of interpersonal conflict, but rather, almost entirely from the ticking internal clock of Ever’s need to finally make decisions. Which boy will she choose? Which career path? And will she tell her parents about it? But until those choices need to be made, Love In Taipei luxuriates in its fluffy saga of lovestruck teens on fun outings, giving into the temptations of first dates, first touches, and first kisses. It’s as cute as they come, thanks in large part to Liao’s wide-eyed, deeply felt performance, as a girl who starts out shy and awkward, but is never inorganically “dorky” in an old-school Hollywood sense. Her “glow-up” moment when she finds her confidence isn’t a radical outward makeover, but rather, an adjustment to the way she already dresses (the film’s costume design also stands out as a major strength, given its fidelity to each character). She doesn’t change who she is, but rather, how she carries herself, an idea few films in this genre have so precisely captured.
Eventually, the film’s lack of any real dramatic rigor does wear slightly thin. It’s hardly the kind of story that could support an entire series—the third of Wen’s novels hits shelves this November. However, as a self-contained outing, Love In Taipei provides enough moments of levity to feel warm and satisfying within familiar rom-com confines, against a backdrop Hollywood has seldom seen.
Love In Taipei is now streaming on Paramount+
Published on August 10, 2023