An ordinary middle-aged woman begins to wonder what it’s all been for when dealing with her insensitive, authoritarian husband, distant children, and the sacrifices she continually made to make others happy in CJ Wang’s touching family drama, Reclaim (一家之主, yījiāzhīzhǔ). The Chinese title, master of the house, is in its way ironic in the various ways in which Lan-xin (Nina Paw Hee-ching) is expected to shoulder all of the domestic responsibility with none of the control, though she is indeed attempting to reclaim something of herself as a woman and an individual as distinct from being someone’s, wife, mother, friend, or teacher.
Lan-xin wanted to study art in Paris, but she got married young and started family and ever since then has led a conventional life doing what she thought to be right thing. Now, however, with her husband David (Kou Hsi-Shun) recently retired and both her children grown up she’s wondering a little what it’s all been for especially as David is a chauvinistic throwback who belittles her work as an art teacher while harping on about ways to make money patiently waiting for his collection of antique teapots to rise in value. Now that her mother’s dementia has intensified and she keeps escaping from her nursing home, Lan-xin wants to bring her to live with them but David is both dismissive and disinterested talking about it in the same way one would to a child who wants to get a dog asking if they really have the space and making it clear that looking after her will be Lan-xin’s responsibility.
While David holds on to a substantial cheque with the intention of investing it in a series of harebrained schemes from luxury tombs to VR cafes, Lan-xin’s desire is essentially to try and repair her fracturing family by buying a larger apartment where they could all live together. David complains that no one tells him anything, but that’s largely because he’s continually dismissive of their dreams and aspirations blowing a hole in his daughter’s new project designing eco-friendly homes that prioritise individual comfort by telling her that she should just extend the living area into the balcony to trick people into thinking they’re getting more for their money. Jia-ning (Ko Chia-yen) in particular is feeling lost in her life unsure of what role it is she’s supposed to be playing while clearly disillusioned with the nature of the relationship between her parents in which her mother is expected to sacrifice her desires in service of her father’s. It’s clear that neither of the children want the kind of futures their parents envisaged for them, their professor son also preparing to return from the US to live a simple life in the Taiwanese countryside.
Both of the children, however, take their mother for granted and often treat her poorly. The son orders her to book his plane tickets for him and abruptly hangs up after asking her to clean his room and make his favourite food, while Jia-ning also snaps at her expecting her to handle domestic tasks and locate missing items. Lan-xin forms a quasi-maternal relationship with a former student who has returned from America (Mason Lee) and now works in finance but is faced with the implosion of all her hopes firstly in her daughter’s more immediate needs to claim independence in her working life while avoiding the same compromises she was forced to make, and then by the illusionary nature of her home owning dream buying one home for fragmenting family rather than enduring her dissatisfying living arrangements while investing in separate homes for each of her children.
There may be a degree of personal myth making in her meditating on the lost opportunity of a Parisian education as implied in an imaginary conversation with her mother, though as her miniature-making hobby implies perhaps she played the role she wanted to play but lost sight of herself somewhere along the way. A voyage into her own memory reunites her with her essential self and allows her to reclaim her name no longer willing to be subservient to her husband’s desires but prioritising her own. As in her dream, all her sacrifices will eventually be repaid while Jia-ning too comes to a better understanding of her mother and grandmother along with her own place in a changing society. Lan-xin is finally a master of herself no longer afraid to take up space in her own home and in full control of her own aspirations and desires.
Netflix trailer (English subtitles)
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