The strong elderly Taiwanese woman who silently endures a life of suffering under the shackles of patriarchy is a story that’s often explored in local cinema.
The theme takes center stage in Little Big Women, which tells the story of Shoying (Chen Shu-fang, 陳淑芳), the Chen family matriarch who turned her shrimp-roll stall into a successful restaurant after her philandering husband abandoned the family decades previously. The husband’s untimely death on her 70th birthday throws upends her life as she has to arrange the funeral with her three grown daughters.
Chen, who won last year’s Golden Horse for best actress for this role, also won the best supporting actress award for Dear Tenant (親愛的房客), where she played an ill, but dignified, woman who mourns over the death of her son.
Photo courtesy of Vie Vision Pictures
Chen has a much more complex and nuanced role to work with in Little Big Women. Shoying is playful in private, first seen singing a karaoke love song in the back of a taxi, but is also extremely proud and bitter about the past. She is deeply caring but often domineering toward her three grown daughters, who don’t seem to have the best relationship with her even though she practically raised them alone to become successful adults.
The daughters each have their own issues. The oldest, Ching (Hsieh Ying-hsuan, 陳宛青), is a dance choreographer with health issues. Yu (Vivian Hsu, 徐若瑄) is a plastic surgeon, while Jiajia (Sun Ke-fong, 孫可芳) constantly clashes with her mother while learning how to run the restaurant.
Despite the father being virtually absent for most of their lives, the three often defend him and fight with their mother, which provides a somewhat hard-to-believe yet effectively heartbreaking setting and serves as the basis of the bulk of the conflicts. In one defining scene, Jiajia follows her father’s lover’s wishes and invites a Buddhist prayer chanting group to the funeral hall, while Shoying immediately counters with a rowdy ceremony with blaring suona (嗩吶, a trumpet-like instrument) music.
Photo courtesy of Vie Vision Pictures
While the acting is superb and there are some charming and genuinely moving moments, Shoying’s brooding pride and simmering resentment dominate the atmosphere, leading to a suffocating and slow-burning two hours. Just like in their lives, the daughters’ roles are overshadowed by their mother in the movie, and more focus could have been placed on their relationships with each other, and why they responded as they did to their father’s death. There’s also not much background about the father, aside from his womanizing and squandering the family’s money, which makes it hard to sympathize with the daughters who side with him.
This is director Hsu Cheng-chieh (許承傑) first feature film, developing the script from a short film of the same name, and perhaps it should have been flushed out a bit more. It’s still a strong attempt, and the complex and often-chaotic family dynamics and subtleties it presents will speak deeply to Taiwanese audiences.
Little Big Women 孤味
DIRECTED BY: Hsu Cheng-chieh (許承傑)
STARRING:Chen Shu-fang (陳淑芳) as Shoying, Hsieh Ying-hsuan (謝盈萱) as Ching, Vivian Hsu, (徐若瑄) as Yu and Sun Ke-fong (孫可芳) as Jiajia
RUNNING TIME: 123 Minutes
TAIWAN RELEASE: On Netflix
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