It’s AAPI month, and HBO Max is bringing shows from Asian and Asian-American creators to the forefront. This 10-part Taiwanese drama about a troubled marriage by Peter Ho lands in the US after being released in Asia in late 2021. With a barrage of new content releases, should this be your next binge?
Opening Shot: In front of a glass window two women stand on opposite sides, mirroring each other’s movements. The woman facing us has a smile on her face; the one on the other side isn’t facing us but we can see a reflection in the mirror — she’s wearing a mask. The women continue to dance with each other until the masked woman is called away when her father returns home.
The Gists: Yong-Jie is struggling to make ends meet, working two jobs to pay for her deadbeat husband Zhi-Sheng’s debts. Her sister de ella pleads for her to leave him, but Yong-Jie refuses to even consider divorce, though Zhi-Sheng drowns further into his gambling addiction de ella. After mobsters storm Yong-Jie’s workplace demanding the money, she suffers a psychiatric break in the elevator, haunted by the name Hitomi.
Our take: Who’s By Your Side opens with a rather thick scene: tortured girls, suicide and murder are in the initial frames of this HBO Asia series. But what follows in the pilot is a meditation on a failing relationship and the price of unwavering loyalty. While the show does employ some supernatural, horror, and thriller elements, the initial vibes read like a red herring when compared to the rest of the first episode.
Yong-Jie is cast as a sympathetic heroine—hard working though struggling, she is the primary breadwinner of her small family. But what she does n’t initially track is why she’s still with a husband who ca n’t even be bothered to unclog the toilet (which he clogged, mind you). Without any sort of rationale in favor of their relationship, it’s hard to understand why she’s so steadfastly loyal and therefore hard to root for both him and their relationship de ella to succeed. The study of relationships is a genuinely fascinating topic, but there still needs to be an anchor to keep it realistic.
Based on the pilot alone, it’s hard to square what exactly this show will be in Episode 2 and beyond, and not enough of the storylines were tied together to present a cohesive narrative. In Googling the premise of the show, the logline reads: “Yong-Jie, a married woman, works two jobs to help pay off her husband for her Zhi-Sheng’s debt for her. He, however, suspects that she may be guilty of infidelity.” However, the infidelity subplot is not even introduced in the first episode, and there are no hints of her psychotic breaks from her connected to Hitomi from the opening scenes.
While the entire cast is strong, it’s hard to recommend a show whose pilot is so uneven and doesn’t successfully set up the entire season’s storylines.
Parting Shot: Zhi-Sheng looks on as a group of people perform a ritualistic dance around a fire.
Sleeper Star: Vivian Hsu as Yong-Jie is fantastic, calibrating the many emotions that her character has to endure in her marriage.
Most Pilot-y Line: “If I don’t have dreams, I’ll be like a salted fish,” Zhi-Sheng says laughing as Yong-Jie pleads for him to get his act together.
Our Call: SKIP IT. While there may be answers down the line, there’s too much TV out there to stick with shows that don’t have a unified vision from the start.
Radhika Mennon (@menonrad) is a TV-obsessed writer based in Los Angeles. Her work by her has appeared on Vulture, Teen Vogue, Paste Magazine, and more. At any given moment, she can ruminate at length over Friday Night Lights, the University of Michigan, and the perfect slice of pizza. You may call her Rad.