What could be more wholesome and comforting than a rice dumpling? To support their desperate family, a father and daughter become, unbeknownst to each other, Rice Dumpling Vendors (燒肉粽), hoping to buy back their innocence through honest work but secretly ashamed of the depths to which they’ve fallen. Rising economic prosperity has it seemed provoked a moral decline and resulted in an arrogant entitlement that allows wealthy men to assume they can do as they please, but one ordinary businessman is about to get an unexpected humbling when confronted by the consequences of his moral transgressions.
Tsibing (Yang Ming) is outwardly successful. He dresses in suits, has a large house and chauffeur driven car, can afford to employ a nanny, and comes home to an elegant middle-class wife (Jin Mei) and three adorable children. Despite all of that, however, he’s about to ruin everything. His mistress is secretly part of a criminal gang. She gets her boyfriend to pretend to rob the place, knocking out Tsibing’s wife and undressing her, leaving a pair of underpants on the bed to make it look like her lover has thrown his clothes on in a hurry and jumped out of the French doors to avoid being caught out by Tsibing’s unexpected arrival. Tsibing doesn’t stop to ask questions. He rounds on his wife, beating her violently in front of their young son whom he also kicks in the ribs for trying to defend her. Hypocritically pointing out that his taking a mistress is no justification for her to take a lover a too, he throws her out of his house, only to be thrown out himself when he realises that his mistress has stolen all his money. Ruined and penniless he moves into a shack with the three kids and tries to keep things together while meditating on his mistakes.
The Rice Dumpling Vendors is, somewhat unusually, a melodrama of male failure in which Tsibing experiences a humbling which pulls him away from the amoral capitalism of the post-war era towards humanistic compassion. The couple next-door, a balloon seller (Chin Tu) who dresses as a clown and his feisty wife (Siu Chu), were unable to have children of their own and quickly take to the young family, feeling sorry for Tsibing and often helping him out particularly with buying formula milk for the baby. “I always thought people were selfish” he confesses while lying on a hospital bed after sustaining a serious workplace injury, finally seeing a different, less materialistic way to live.
As the closing song reminds us, however, you can’t do anything without money. Attempting to walk away from failure, Tsibing finds himself in an impossible position. He can’t find work that can support a family, and even once he finds a job he gets himself injured leaving him entirely unable to provide. Oldest daughter Hsiu-chuan (Dai Peishan) tries to take the burden on herself, selling lottery tickets and heading out at all hours to hawk rice dumplings to passersby in the streets, unconvincingly telling her father that she’s going to help a classmate who is sick in the hospital with their homework. Hsiu-chuan’s earnestness stands in complete contrast to her father’s increasing desperation compounded by guilt and regret. In a low moment, he even considers abandoning the baby in front of the house of a wealthy childless couple in the hope that they will adopt her.
Strangely, Tsibing never considers asking the childless couple from next-door who already dote on his children if they’d be willing to look after the baby, but determines straight on placing himself at the mercy of the wealthy. The couple at least seem nice – they want a child and would spoil it with both love and money, but they are also arch materialists. Their first thought is that they should give Tsibing money in compensation, as if they were buying a pet. It doesn’t quite occur to them that he might change his mind, after all they can give his baby a quality of life he currently cannot in which she’ll be well fed and taken care of. Is it selfish of him to deny her that? Hsiu-chuan and her brother, however, aren’t having any of it. They’re taking their sister home where she belongs, vowing to give up on school and double down on their part time jobs to make sure they can afford milk to feed her.
Tsibing too lowers himself once again, selling not only lottery tickets but later rice dumplings, telling Hsiu-Chuan, who is doing exactly the same thing, that he’s got a job as a nightwatchman in a warehouse which is why he’s out all night. Humbled and encouraged by the warmhearted altruism of his kindly neighbours, he’s learning to renounce the materialist life and re-embrace what’s important. The mistress, meanwhile, making an unexpected reappearance, pays a heavy price both for her amoral materialism, and for her transgressions as an “immoral” woman whose attempts to use men provoke only jealousy and violence. Meanwhile, the wife is eventually vindicated and seems to have retained both her wealth and her class status even after being unfairly thrown out by Tsibing.
What we’re presented with is a seemingly uncomplicated family reunion, completely ignoring Tsibing’s brutal use of violence against his wife and son which is itself intended to demonstrate his “manliness” and patriarchal authority. He reminds his wife of the cultural double standard that insists that a man may take a mistress but a wife must be faithful, punishing her not for betraying their family but for making a fool of him. Little does he know however that he’s already been made a fool of by a “wicked” woman, and it’s entirely his own fault for acting irresponsibly, regarding a mistress as little more than a status symbol. Nevertheless, now humbled he has a new appreciation for what it means to be a family man, seeking not riches but simple wholesome pleasures like rice dumplings and friendship surrounded by kind and honest people always willing to lend a hand to those in need.
Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema