“Just look at yourself” the heroine of Hsieh Pei-ju’s Heaving Craving (大餓, Dà È) is constantly told, as if she should simply know why she’s not getting on in life. Ying-juan (Tsai Jia-yin) is a larger lady in a culture which prizes conformity, insisting on its own narrowly defined notions of “beauty” and rejecting all which lies outside them. Though she’s perhaps “happy” in herself, at least to a point, Ying-juan harbours an intense sense of inferiority which is not helped by her emotionally distant yet judgemental mother whose less than gentle prodding presents an additional barrier to her daughter’s forward motion.
When we first meet Ying-juan, she’s buying a trolly full of puddings from the supermarket, in fact clearing out their entire stock. A woman behind her complains that she can’t see any on the shelves, noticing that they’re all in Ying-juan’s trolley and silently judging her, assuming that she’s going to eat them all herself. Ying-juan takes a box out and gives them to the woman, well accustomed to this kind of disapproval though as we later discover the puddings were actually for the kids at the school where she is temporarily working as a cook. These kinds of micro-aggressions are a constant occurrence in Ying-juan’s everyday life. She tries to give up her seat on a bus to an elderly lady, but everyone tells her to sit down because she’ll block the aisle. She thinks about getting another job in a restaurant but realises that the kitchen is too narrow for her to move about freely, and then there are horrible kids in the street who like to throw eggs at the local “fatso”.
Despite her kind heart and affable nature, Ying-juan is constantly told that she’s undesirable and that her unconventional looks are an embarrassment to those around her. Ying-juan’s mother (Samantha Ko Hoi-ling), a skinny, elegant woman, practices yoga and puts great effort into being presentable. She’s “ashamed” to introduce her daughter looking as she does and constantly makes excuses, eventually signing her up for weight loss courses as a “birthday present” under the pretext that she’s trying to help Ying-juan get her mojo back so she can get going with a “proper” career and perhaps a relationship.
The weight loss courses, which we are first introduced to by means of a creepy advert, are almost akin to a dodgy cult promising to introduce participants to their “better selves”. Ying-juan is not really invested and somewhat dismissive of the the impatient life coach’s theatrical manner, but after she meets a handsome delivery driver, Wu (Chang Yao-jen), who comes to her defence when a neighbour tries to sexually assault her, she decides to give them a go. Though she tries to follow their guidance even as they try to sell her expensive “supplements”, treatments, and finally an operation, Ying-juan cannot seem to lose the weight, leading her to feel even more inadequate that she did before.
Underneath it all, she wonders if anyone is going to like the “real” her, that perhaps her size wasn’t the problem and she’s just not someone people will want around whether she conforms to their desires or not. A caring and nurturing person, Ying-juan loves to cook but her mother doesn’t even come home in time for her birthday dinner, which she cooked herself because going to restaurants is no fun when people judge you for what or how much you’re eating.
Judgement is indeed the primary problem, and when it’s connected to your appearance that’s something you cannot hide. Wu, confiding in her that he used to be bigger himself, tells Ying-juan that he eventually came to the conclusion that changing other people is too hard, it’s faster to change yourself, but his words have a rosier connotation than it at first seems in that it’s not so much that Ying-juan needs to lose weight as it is that she needs to feel more comfortable in herself so that she’s not enduring judgement but actively rejecting it. It’s a lesson she begins to discover after bonding with a lonely little boy, Xiao-yu (Chang En-wei), whom she accidentally discovers likes to wear dresses.
Like Ying-juan’s mother, Xiao-yu’s does not approve of her son’s difference and has apparently already sent him to several doctors to try and get it fixed. Because he doesn’t like upsetting his mum, Xiao-yu vowed not to wear girls’ clothes anymore, but living with shame and repressing a part of your true self is a painful and heavy thing, especially for a child. The mothers might say that they’re looking out for their kids, that they know their lives will be harder if they seem to be “different” and that therefore they want them to fit in and be “likeable”, but it’s also true that they are embarrassed and ashamed to have have children that don’t “measure up” to the norm, preoccupied with the way their difference reflects on them as people and as parents.
Luckily, Xiao-yu has a friend like Ying-juan who tells him that it’s OK to be himself and there’s nothing wrong in liking to wear pretty dresses even if she hasn’t quite learned to extend herself that same generosity. After trying everything and finally being robbed of her sense of taste, she begins to rediscover what’s important seeing a chubby little boy living his best life by thoroughly enjoying a tasty sandwich and radiating joy, while a pair of skinny women walk past grumpily judging others for their lack of self-control when they themselves are wilfully repressing their desires and probably a little bit miserable on the inside. The creepy self help video from the beginning was right in one respect, in that what Ying-juan craves is happiness but that’s not something you find by following other people’s arbitrary rules, only in accepting yourself and embracing joy where you find it.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)