Film Review: ‘Little Big Women’《孤味》Is Big on Sentimental Moments With Powerful Performances From a Stellar Cast5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
On Shoying’s 70th birthday, she learns that her long-lost husband Bochang has died. The worst is that there is another woman Tsai, who stayed by Bochang till his last breath. A merry reunion turns into a wake, an unfortunately perfect time for the family to face their complicated mother-daughter relationships. Shoying decides to find out who Tsai is. Will Shoying get the closure she has longed for all her life?
Director: Joseph Hsu
Cast: Chen Shu-Fang, Hsieh Yian-Hsuan, Vivian Hsu, Sun Ke-Fang
Language: Mandarin, Minnan
Runtime: 123 minutes
For a genre that is explored so much in Taiwanese dramas to the point of cliché, the family drama in Little Big Women《孤味》surprisingly charms with its poignant and empathetic portrayal of familial love, misunderstandings, and forgiveness. And this is a film that doesn’t rely on melodrama or theatrics. Instead, it uses delicate storytelling and haunting performances from brilliant actresses to convey a whole palette of emotions.
Inspired by director Joseph Hsu’s own grandmother, Little Big Women zooms in on the peculiarities and nuances surrounding a Taiwanese family full of women. We have the matriarch, Lin Shoying (Chen Shu-Fang, who dazzled in her award-winning role in Dear Tenant). Together with her are her three daughters, the eldest daughter and dancer Ching (Hsieh Ying-Hsuan), the middle daughter and plastic surgeon Yu (Vivian Hsu), and the youngest daughter and restaurateur Jiajia (Sun Ke-Fang). Their father, Chen Bochang (Lung Shao-Hua), left them when they’re young for another woman, Ms. Tsai (Ning Ding), leaving Shoying to take care of them single-handedly while building a restaurant up from scratch.
On Shoying’s 70th birthday, the family receives news of Bochang’s death. From the start of his funeral to the end of his wake, tensions fraught within the family are pulled into focus. Secrets surrounding Shoying’s relationship with Bochang, and surrounding Bochang’s disappearance are revealed. Not only that, the film manoeuvres around the daughters’ own lives and problems as well, such as Ching’s relapsed cancer or Yu tiger-mothering her daughter, Clementine (Buffy Chen, another Golden Horse Awards winner with her performance in The Silent Forest).
Perhaps this is why for such a slow, unassuming story, it never feels like the pace is plodding. The film is full of tensed, edgy moments that threatens to explode in the viewers’ face. One can almost cut through the tangible, palpable stress in the scene where Shoying confronts her three daughters who’ve been talking behind her back. Every dialogue dished out intensifies the tension, almost like prodding an oversized balloon with a toothpick.
In another scene, Jiajia brings Buddhist monks to Bochang’s funeral against Shoying’s wishes for a Taoist funeral. The mock battle between the Taoist and Buddhist monks fighting for dominance with their rituals is simply tragicomic.
And you’ll be kept on the edge of your seat wondering what really happened between Shoying and Bochang as the film keeps withholding revelations about their relationship. Hsu made sure you’ll never get the full picture until the end, teasing the secrets out with well-timed flashbacks and confessions.
Of course, a film edited with consecutive high-strung scenes will only result in a stifling story. But never once did I feel that way, since Hsu splices in tender, often bittersweet moments amidst the tension. For instance, we get to see Yu’s family bonding and laughing together over a photo album, after a small fight that erupted over the dining table.
Perhaps what I liked best about the film is Hsu’s patience and empathy for all of his characters. In no way does the film try to valorise women and portray them as invulnerable, perfect people. Instead, here are women burdened by their pasts, who won’t hesitate to hurt other people in order to get something that is painfully out of their reach.
Shoying especially assumes a tough, indomitable front in front of her daughters. But she, too, has her own regrets and secrets that show how lonely and vulnerable she is, and how unforgiving she is to herself. Don’t mistake these characters’ vulnerability for weakness, however. They are strong enough to unapologetically fight for what they truly believe in.
None of these would be possible without the actresses’ brilliant performances. They can show glimmers of emotions with the barest facial expression shifts, demonstrating at once how complex their characters are. Chen Shu-Fang, in capturing the subtleties of the tough but vulnerable matriarch, definitely deserved the Best Leading Actress award for the Golden Horse Award.
And cinematographer Jon Keng knows exactly how to position his shots without being too distracting or obtrusive, devoting them expressively to fleshing out the characters. At times, the camera is zoomed out to fit the ensemble cast into the frame, illuminating the nuanced interactions amongst Shoying and her daughters. At times, it knows when to zoom in, especially into Ching’s and Shoying’s expressions, capturing how multidimensional they are.
Little Big Women will move you to tears especially if you are, like me, a sucker for the tough but vulnerable matriarch, and if you love sentimental Hokkien songs. I was especially close to sobbing towards the end when Shoying tearfully starts singing the titular song, 孤味, which roughly translates to the taste of loneliness. This film is no visual trailblazer, but it definitely left a mark in me with its stellar ensemble cast.
Little Big Women is now showing on Netflix.