Repossession (Goh Ming-siu & Scott Chong Hillyard, 2019)

Reposession poster“I bet he doesn’t even know he’s in a cage” the “hero” of Repossession is told on asking his best friend if he thinks a hamster they’re looking at is happy on his little wheel. Like the rest of us, he’s ensnared by a cage called capitalism, but also by series of smaller cages inside it which range from toxic masculinity and persistent social conservatism, to the supernatural and the ghosts of past trauma. The biggest demon of them all, however, is pride, and as is so often the case, it’s those around him who will eventually pay the price.

50-something Jim Tan (Gerald Chew) is a success. He’s got a high ranking salaryman job which evidently pays enough for a multi floor apartment with its own private pool in one of Singapore’s most exclusive housing complexes, as well as a six figure luxury car. Given his relative seniority, it therefore seems slightly absurd that he’s pulled aside one day by a younger man from HR who tells him that he’s been identified as one of several employees to have underperformed in the previous year and is being a given a choice – accept a termination or agree to resign. Jim is upset. He insists on seeing someone higher up but all to no avail and is eventually fired after making a scene in an admin assistant’s office.

Jim tries to tell his wife, Linda (Amy Cheng), he’s lost his job, but loses the stomach for it when she starts telling him that their daughter’s (Rachel Wan) uni fees are going up and they’ve been invited to a swanky wedding at which they’ll be expected to contribute a hefty gift. Confident he can get another job despite the fact he’s over 50 and will be applying as someone fired from his last position, Jim becomes one of the many salarymen ghosts haunting the local parks, leaving for work as normal in the morning but with nowhere to go. All around him he starts hearing voices shaming him for being one of those men, a failure, someone who couldn’t provide for his family, a loser without a job too deluded to realise that men over 50 don’t get hired in Singapore’s competitive job market – something rammed home to him when he finds himself sitting on sofas next to fresh-faced graduates interviewing for entry level positions at a fraction of his previous salary.

Jim’s friend tells him that perhaps this is for the best, that perhaps the universe is telling him it’s time to take a break and play some golf. He asks him what the point of all this ceaseless toil really is, to which Jim poignantly answers that he did it for his family but the claim is exposed as somewhat hollow when he starts to hide the unpaid bills right next to his world’s best dad mug. Jim inhabits a conservative world in which men provide and women stay home. It’s important to him that he’s built a comfortable life for his wife and daughter in the status conscious society, but he’s entirely blind that in doing so he’s fenced them inside a cage of their own. Jim’s wife Linda gave up her job and started a charitable organisation, doing good deeds looking after vulnerable people and busying herself with philanthropy. Finally learning about their money troubles, she quite reasonably decides it’s time to get a paying job again but her determination to help save their family only further wounds Jim’s fragile sense of male pride as man who can no longer support his wife and daughter even as he “degrades” himself using his flashy car to pick up fares as an Uber driver.

Jim is a man haunted by a sense of failure stemming back to a traumatic incident in which he failed to protect his younger sister whose ongoing medical bills are another worry on top of his domestic responsibilities. He sees himself, rightly or wrongly, as pursued by a soul sucking monster which is why everyone is always telling him he looks “drained”, neatly explaining his recent spell of bad luck. The real “monster”, however is the one inside – latent male violence born of an inferiority complex and resentment towards a high pressure society in which economic success and social status are the only things that count. Jim struggles to “repossess” himself, while watching his demons try to repossess the people he loves, but never realises quality of the fear that he’s fighting. “What makes you think you’ve hit rock bottom?” a passenger ominously asks him. When you’re sitting this far from the bars you hardly notice the cage at all.


Repossession was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English, no subtitles)

Where We Belong (ที่ตรงนั้น มีฉันหรือเปล่า, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, 2019)

Where We Belong poster 1“I don’t understand, is life supposed to be this sad?” asks a dejected teen at the centre of Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s Where We Belong (ที่ตรงนั้น มีฉันหรือเปล่า). Life is indeed sad, and the lesson she’s still too young to learn is that sometimes people don’t come back, things don’t get finished, and you just have to live with all your regrets while trying (but mostly failing) to do better next time. Starring members of Thailand’s BNK48 (the Thai offshoot of Japan’s AKB48 and the recent subject of a documentary by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit), Where We Belong is part coming-of-age tale and part zeitgeisty take on contemporary Thai youth as it finds itself increasingly disconnected from the social conservatism of its parents’ generation but floundering when asked to find a new direction in which to strike out.

Highschooler Sue (Jennis Oprasert) is a case in point. Unbeknownst to her conservative father (Prawit Boonprakong), she’s applied for a scholarship to study abroad in Finland. Talented in English, she’s not much idea of what she wants to do with her life but knows that she has to get out of her small-town existence and away from the family noodle shop she feels is tying her to a future not of her choosing. Her best friend, Belle (Praewa Suthamphong), meanwhile is resolved to stay at home but doesn’t have much direction either save her attachment to her elderly grandmother (Saheoiyn Aophachat). Belle’s mother left the family a long time ago and lives a vacuous consumerist life in Bangkok, something which Belle is also keen to reject.

Meeting up with a friend at a local internet cafe, Belle is unsurprised to find it so full because nobody wants to go home to their parents right now owing to the intense pressure on them to succeed. That pressure is, however, slightly at odds with their traditional expectations for their children. No one expects much of young girls like Sue and Belle, even if they superficially want them to do well in their exams. Sue’s mother passed away some years ago, and her distant father is dead set against the idea of her travelling abroad, terrified that once she’s seen the world she won’t look back. Everyone expects her to take over the noodle shop, insisting that it’s an important part of the local culture and can’t simply be another sacrifice to progress like so many tiny eateries and family businesses abandoned by youngsters looking for a brighter future somewhere else.

Trying to defend her friend, Belle tells the customers in Sue’s restaurant that they can keep their “stupid heritage” to themselves, even while planning to stay home and be the good daughter. Unfortunately her words backfire, further placing her at odds with the conflicted Sue who is still trying to process the implications of her transnational move. While she remains in a kind of denial, it’s Belle who’s trying to sort everything out for her – returning old comic books to the library, getting their old band back together, and even trying to help her patch things up with a friend she’s fallen out with even though Belle herself is a little jealous of the close relationship they once had. She does these things because, as she hints to their friend at the library, she’s afraid Sue won’t come back and knows on some level that their present relationship, whatever happens after, is going to change even it doesn’t exactly end.

Belle’s grandmother has a strange habit of staring out the window, waiting for a boy who said he’d meet her the next day decades earlier but never came back. Belle doesn’t want to be her flighty mother living a superficial life in the city, but Sue doesn’t want to end up like grandma waiting around for something that’s never going to happen. At her interview, she’s honest in her replies, admitting that she currently has no dream other than getting out of Thailand, but cleverly adding that by going to Finland where they have the world’s best education she hopes to figure out what her life’s dream might be.

What the two girls discover is that life is a series of goodbyes. They’re on different paths, and that’s sad, but it’s just the way things are. Before she goes, Sue tries to put her affairs in order with varying degrees of success – trying to come to terms with her mother’s death, telling a boy she likes about how she really feels (but failing to take things further), and patching up old friendships while also accepting that sometimes they just end with no real resolution only a sense of regret. Eventually they figure out where they belong. Sue leaves, and Belle is alone surrounded by familiar absences, but life goes on, and it’s sad, but that’s how we live.


Where We Belong was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Red Phallus (Tashi Gyeltshen, 2018)

Red Phallus poster“I doubt anyone can get out of this paradise” laments an angry man at the centre of Tashi Gyeltshen’s debut feature The Red Phallus. Far from the happiest kingdom, the Bhutan of the Red Phallus is an oppressive place where misogyny and classism rule. Tyrannised by tradition and a conservative culture, the heroine finds herself trapped in an impossible situation, by turns mocked and humiliated because of her father’s “embarrassing” profession, and left with no-one to turn to when misused by the men all around her.

16-year-old Sangay (Tshering Euden) has trouble getting up for school. Unbeknownst to her father (Dorji Gyeltshen), the reason is not so much teenage fatigue and latent rebelliousness, but that the other children are less than kind to her because of his unusual profession – he carves wooden phalluses for a living and puts on a creepy red atsura clown outfit to participate in local festivals. At her age, Sangay should be in year X, but she’s only in year VII because she misses so much school and if she misses much more she’ll be given the rather ironic punishment of suspension. That’s not the only reason she’s in trouble though. The headmaster has also been told she’s been seen going about with Passa (Singye), a married man with two children who’s much older than her, but that’s not the problem. The problem is Passa comes from a family of butchers, which is why it’s so unseemly.

Weirdly, no one seems to be very concerned that a married man of around 30 is hanging round with a 16-year-old girl. When we first meet Passa without knowing his age or background he seems OK, possibly Sangay’s only friend, but he quickly turns nasty when she’s less than keen to take him up on his offer of running away together to the city. She tells him that she’s too young, “just a girl”, and isn’t sure that’s a decision she’s in a position to make. He begins to push her, criticising her for always saying she’s too young or not strong enough. Passa asks her when she’s going to make her own decisions, but Sangay is too clever for him. She’s well aware that by “your own decisions” he only ever means agreeing with him. She’s just made her own decision now when she told him she didn’t want to go, but he doesn’t like it so he tries to browbeat her by undermining her sense of confidence by implying that she’s too stupid to decide for herself while also lacking the courage of her convictions.

Why she’s hanging round with Passa in the first place remains a mystery save a later reference to a traumatic incident he tries to blackmail her with. What’s clear is that she doesn’t see much of a way out for herself through education and has become too afraid or embarrassed to attend school because her father’s profession. Sangay’s dad is largely a background presence in her life, yelling at her to get out of bed or barking orders from his studio. He doesn’t like it when she takes too long coming home after school, but sends her straight back out again on errands delivering phalluses to customers when he’s too busy to go himself. Sangay is not a fan of the phalluses, and like most of the other children, seems to find them very embarrassing, virtually throwing them at the son of her customer who giggles on seeing her approach with her arms full of oversize wooden fertility ornaments.

Apparently Sangay’s dad is one of the best atsuras in the country, though for reasons perhaps connected to the aforementioned traumatic incident, he’s thinking of retiring. In any case, he’s not much of a protective talisman for his daughter, meekly bowing his head and remaining silent when called in by the headmaster, and later spectacularly failing when he tries to have a word with Passa to explain how deeply inappropriate it is for him to be sniffing round his teenage daughter who is still after all a school girl.

It’s no wonder Passa would like to leave the “paradise” of their small rural community considering he’s the lowest of the low solely because his father was a butcher. Sangay’s headmaster angrily barks at her about a lack of ambition, threatening her that she might end up a butcher’s wife as if that were the worst possible outcome. Even so, Passa – the lowliest of all the men, still thinks he has a natural right to boss and abuse Sangay, emphasising his own masculinity and the lack of it in Sangay’s meek father whose ironic profession it is to carve giant phalluses that are supposed to ward off danger when “phalluses” seem to present nothing but danger and disappointment to young Sangay. When smashing crockery to ease her frustration is no longer enough, Sangay’s rage boils over into something violent and self destructive, her silence giving way to a single scream of infinite impossibility.


The Red Phallus was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Balloon (气球 / དབུགས་ལྒང་, Pema Tseden, 2019)

Balloon poster“The world has changed but you’re still so conservative”, a bemused doctor exclaims on learning that a female patient would rather wait around for a woman doctor than disclose a “woman’s problem” to a man. Set in ’80s Tibet, Pema Tseden’s seventh feature, Balloon (气球, Qìqiú / དབུགས་ལྒང་), finds itself at the intersection of multiple worlds and changing times as a small family is quietly torn apart by societal forces beyond its control.

As the film opens, the family’s two youngest sons are busy spying on dad and grandad through the fuzziness of an overinflated balloon. Only, unbeknownst to them, it isn’t a balloon at all but a condom, a slightly embarrassing harbinger of modernity now necessitated by the recently instituted One Child Policy. With the oldest boy away at high school, Dargye (Jinpa) and his wife Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) have three kids already and paying the fine on a fourth would more or less mean financial ruin. Thankfully, the condoms are free – the only problem being that Drolkar has to go to the clinic in town to ask for them which she finds extremely embarrassing, so much so that she can’t even bear to say the word, almost winking as she whispers “the free things” before quickly stuffing them in her pocket. 

What Drolkar wanted to ask the doctor about, however, was the possibility of sterilisation. With the kids constantly nicking the condoms along with the chance that they aren’t 100% reliable, she is in constant worry of what it might mean for the family if she becomes pregnant with a fourth child, especially, she tells the doctor, because Dargye seems to be in a particularly amorous mood at the moment which increases the chances of something going “wrong”. The female doctor can’t quite understand Drolkar’s prudery, or her slightly “old-fashioned” way of thinking. The doctor, obviously, enjoyed a university education. She has a career of her own and a clearly defined individual life as something other than a wife and mother. She wonders why anyone would want to have so many children in this day and age. Having only one means she can devote all of her resources in one direction, ensuring her child can have a good education and the best start in life, whereas Dargye has just had to sell a cow to pay for his eldest’s school fees while the second two stay home.

For Drolkar, who was perfectly happy with the way things were, the world is still an intensely patriarchal place and even if she wanted to (which she doesn’t, really), it’s probably too late to become anything other than a wife to her husband and mother to her sons. This her sister Ani (Yangshik Tso) learned to her cost. Venturing pick up her nephew Jamyang from school she ends up running into an old flame who apparently ruined her life though some kind of “misunderstanding” which led to her leaving home to become a nun. Now a divorced teacher and apparently rising literary star, he hands her a book inspired by their love affair which he hopes might help to explain whatever it was that happened between them, but Drolkar, still outraged on her sister’s behalf, prevents her from reading it – firstly by throwing it on the fire causing Ani to get her fingers burned (again, but literally) pulling it out, and then by telling Ani’s ex to take the book back and refrain from causing any more trouble dragging up the past.

Yet as much as she’s Dargye’s wife Drolkar tries to assert her authority in other ways aside from taking control of her sister’s romantic future. More practical than her husband, it’s she who is in charge of the condoms, and she who worries about the potential effects of a problematic pregnancy on their family. In a society as patriarchal as this, some might say that such things are in any case a woman’s responsibility, but Drolkar’s belief that bearing a child or not is her own decision eventually places her at odds with her husband who becomes temporarily violent when faced with his impotence, powerless to prevent his wife aborting their baby if that’s what she decides, but also at the mercy of the Chinese state who have arbitrarily decided that something as natural as conceiving a child is now a crime.

For Dargye and his family who live traditional lives far from the urban centres of the modern state, it isn’t only the pain and sadness of being forced to abort their child against their will which burdens them but a spiritual taboo in knowing that the child whose birth they’d be denying may be the reincarnated soul of a much loved relative. Drolkar is forced to choose between her Buddhist beliefs and the demands of Chinese communism, her husband’s wishes and those of the state acting as father. Of course she tries to choose her family, but whichever decision she makes may destroy it either through her husband’s resentment or the costs involved with trying to defy the political reality.

Grandad laments that everyone rides motorbikes these days, you never see horses anymore. Times have indeed changed, but in some ways more than others. While Dargye seems to draw vicarious power from the randy ram he’s borrowed from his friend to stud his sheep, a figure of robust and virile masculinity, he’s effectively neutered by the society in which he lives. Conversely, Drolkar, according to the doctor at least, ought to feel herself liberated but is left with no real choice at all. Only the kids, cheerfully playing with the instruments of their parents’ oppression, have learned to find innocent joy in the midst of such uncertainty while the modern world creeps in all around them.


Balloon was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Yujiro Harumoto, 2016)

going the distance posterThe “family drama” is often regarded as Japanese cinema’s representative genre, but in the consumerist atmosphere of the late 20th century the family itself became an increasingly discredited concept. Nevertheless, it remains true that discriminating against those who have no family is the last acceptable prejudice with orphans in particular unfairly viewed as somehow untrustworthy, rejected by mainstream society, and denied both work and the possibility of starting a family of their own. The hero of Yujiro Harumoto’s debut feature Going the Distance (かぞくへ, Kazoku e) thinks he has everything finally back on track with a steady job and an engagement to a middle-class secretary, but his good heart coupled with his precarious social status seem set to ensure his new start is a non-starter.

Raised in an orphanage in the Goto Islands, Asahi (Shinichiro Matsuura) now lives in Tokyo with this fiancée Kaori (Yumi Endo) for whom he has given up his boxing career to work as a trainer in a gym. Though Kaori, superficially at least, does not care that Asahi is a man with no family, she is a little preoccupied about how it’s going to look that his “family table”  at the reception will be largely unoccupied because he’s only planning on inviting his “brother” from the orphanage, Hiroto (Masahiro Umeda), and his wife.

Hiroto still lives in Goto and works as a fisherman. Hoping to help him out, Asahi sets him up with a man from his gym, Kita (Nobu Morimoto), who is opening a restaurant specialising in super fresh fish. The meeting goes extremely well and earns Hiroto a hefty contract that convinces him he needs to take out a loan to get a bigger boat. Unfortunately, however, Kita turns out to be a crook and Hiroto ends up well out of pocket, not only for the loan but for all the fish he never gets paid for.

Feeling intensely guilty and somewhat responsible, Asahi wants to do everything he can to put things right for Hiroto, even suggesting to Kaori that they postpone the wedding so that he can give part of the money they’ve saved to help take care of his debts. As predicted, Kaori is not happy about the idea, not least because she’s repeatedly explained to Asahi that she needs to get married as soon as possible because she wants her grandmother, who is suffering with dementia, to be able to attend the wedding while she’s still well enough to know what’s going on.

Unbeknownst to Asahi, one of the reasons Kaori is so keen on her grandmother attending is that her mother almost certainly won’t. Despite telling Asahi that her mother is lukewarm on the idea but coming round, the truth is that she won’t even talk to her, rudely rejecting the invitation and vowing that she’s no interest in seeing her daughter throw her life away on a man with no family and no prospects. In fact, Kaori’s mother crassly makes a point of sending her omiai photos for potential arranged marriages to more “suitable” men – ones from “good families” matching her own class background. Kaori wastes no time in calling her a “bigot”, accusing her of indulging in an outdated and offensive prejudice against the orphaned that regards them as untrustworthy because they have no history and are not anchored to anyone who might be held responsible for their actions.

Yet, despite her anger towards her mother Kaori is not quite free of those same prejudices, snapping back at Asahi that he wouldn’t understand what she’s going through because he had no parents of his own. She keeps the drama a secret from him to avoid having to admit that her family oppose the marriage solely because he is an orphan, partly wanting to spare his feelings and partly aware that Asahi is a good and noble man who might choose to absent himself rather than force her to choose between the man she loves and her family.

Meanwhile, Asahi does something similar in refusing to confide in Kaori about everything that’s going on with Hiroto, partly out of guilt and embarrassment, and partly out of shame in knowing that he is on some level betraying her by choosing to save Hiroto rather than prioritise their marriage. He wants to make things right, put them back to the way they were before, but he has an impossible choice – either reject his responsibility to his brother who is also a good and kind man and would not want to cause him trouble in his relationship, or neglect his new responsibilities to his soon-to-be-wife.

Unfortunately, the couple elect to go on deceiving one another, intending to protect but causing only more harm. It may be the case that they’ve rushed into marriage because of Kaori’s grandmother’s precarious health and Asahi’s hopes for a solid family foundation, but their previously happy relationship is eventually eroded by a gradual disillusionment born of refusing to rely on each other, continuing to fight separate battles rather than combine their efforts to fight them together. Faced with the realisation that he may have ruined his relationship by his own foolishness in trying to help a friend with a problem that was really none of his responsibility, Asahi begins to reject Hiroto, giving up on the idea of “family” in its entirety in mistaken resentment towards his brother for a series of decisions that were entirely his own. Nevertheless, what he discovers is that true family isn’t always about blood ties but about people who will always be there for you no matter what you do. Asahi wasn’t quite as alone as he thought he was, but only by admitting his mistakes, accepting his responsibilities, and finally allowing himself to confide in and rely on others can he truly begin to build a family anchored by something deeper than blood.


Going the Distance was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heavy Craving (大餓, Hsieh Pei-ju, 2019)

Heavy Craving poster 1“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.


Heavy Craving was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)