The Ties That Bind — ‘Little Big Women’ and the Bounty of Familial Love8 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
Spoilers for ‘Little Big Women’
In one heartwarming, quietly painful story that hits way too close to home for many of us, Joseph Chen-Chieh Hsu’s feature-length debut Little Big Women paints a portrait of a family dealing with the aftermath of the death of a father who has been absent for most of their lives.
But how do you mourn the loss of someone who was never really there in the first place?
The film, titled 《孤味》 in Chinese, directly translates to “the taste of solitude”. Upon my first viewing, I was rather baffled as to why a film spotlighting such a closely-knit and interdependent familial web would be titled as such. However, as I took a closer look at the characters as individuals in subsequent viewings, the choice of title became increasingly apt.
You see, the solace we find amongst our loved ones is only so comforting once we have tasted loneliness. The film shows us, through the complexity of each character, that it’s precisely those who stand firm and hold us close in our moments of withdrawal who really value us as family.
Little Big Women encapsulates the credo of closeness and loyalty to the family and home — the heart of a (broadly speaking) Asian tradition that has survived centuries and is still evolving to fit a more individualistic modern ethos. Hsu’s film highlights both generational divisions and consistencies to accentuate how each generation embodies it in a different way, coyly finding ways to interlace tradition and modernity in sequences like the three-generational family feast of McDonald’s.
Each of matriarch Lin Shoying’s relationships with her three daughters is strained in different directions. But it’s never portrayed as something earth-shattering or deal-breaking; they disagree, argue, make up, and the cycle restarts. Shu-Fang Chen assumes the role of the mother who has tirelessly fought for her children her entire life. Her stunning portrayal earned the 81-year-old actress a Golden Horse Award for Best Leading Actress — a satisfying victory for a veteran whose career has spanned over 60 years.
Each of Shoying’s relationships with her three daughters is uniquely complex: underscored by a mutual, unconditional love that isn’t always smooth-sailing, but embraces its many intrinsic tensions, pain points, and unaddressed issues.
Shoying’s eldest daughter Ching (Ying-Hsuan Hsieh) is a wild bird with clipped wings. Her character is plagued by a battle with her own health that limits her as a person — even more tormenting for a naturally carefree character. Burdened by a big personality, ego and desire for self-sufficiency that is crippled by physical limitations, Ching rejects the love and concern from the people who deeply care about her with something that tinges with defiance, in a desperate attempt to cling on to some autonomy over her life.
Her relationships with her mother and sisters are therefore strained by her own need to prove herself capable. Shoying agonises over her eldest’s health and her reckless disregard for it. In a climactic scene where Ching aloofly states that she will not go through with more treatment, her mother is visibly wounded by the knowledge that her daughter is unwilling to fight for a life that she herself had so back-breakingly fought for.
Ching’s languid abandon is contrasted by the pristine rigour embodied by her younger sister Yu (Vivian Hsu). Shoying’s second, Yu is the poster child product of the Asian Dream. She excelled academically, got through the status-securing medical school machine, makes a good living as a practising MD, enjoys a loving marriage with an equally successful man, and produced a grandchild for her mother to dote on. Despite all this, she’s still being controlled and criticised by her mother for how she is raising young Clementine (Buffy Chen), leaving her feeling as though she’ll never fully match up to her mother’s expectations.
Jiajia (Ke-Fang Sun) is the youngest sister who comfortably, and almost unapologetically, fulfils her role. The closest to both her parents, she is, therefore, the most caught in the crossfires of their quiet animosity — and the internal conflict that this causes in her shows. As the bridge between her mother and Tsai Meilin (Ning Ding), the woman her father spent the last decade of his life with, Jiajia is torn between her loyalty to her mother and her earnest longing to show up for her father, no matter how much he failed to do the same for her.
Jiajia’s internal turmoil becomes a trigger for the resentment bubbling underneath the surface of Shoying’s attempted dismissiveness and glassy exterior to finally boil over. She can’t understand why her youngest, who has benefited most directly from the fruits of her mother’s labour, still stands up for her father and his mistress.
While she scolds her three middle-aged daughters as they sit dumbfounded like children, her words end up striking them like poisonous darts. We see the chasmic wounds the matriarch carries around, a buildup of bitterness that isn’t to her children but to her estranged husband Chen Bochang (Lung Shao-Hua), whose abandonment still traumatises her much more than she lets on.
Shoying’s anger and performative dismissal of her estranged husband only manage to thinly veil the trauma that her husband stranded her with. Flashback scenes give the audience a glance into the hurt Bochang inflicted on Shoying in the couple’s youth — offering us windows into a past that can only allow us as viewers to interpret him as a man who has failed his family at every turn.
While it may not be a conclusion far removed from the truth, it’s worth remembering that these are Shoying’s flashbacks, and it’s how she has chosen to remember him to justifying her hatred and bitterness for him. This is particularly salient when at the beginning of the wake, in a brief moment of pure spite, she scolds her daughters for kneeling in front of their father’s coffin: “Why are you kneeling? He didn’t even raise you!”
Towards the end of the film, however, we get one final flashback that finally conveys an instance of tenderness between the couple, fondly recalled by Shoying. She finally lets go of Bochang and her grudge against him after decades of heartache, signing the divorce agreement she had held on to all these years, and letting Ms Tsai attend the funeral in her place. This scene is, more than anything else, a manifestation of the matriarch’s acceptance and therefore also her release from a self-imposed identity as a tragic, jilted woman.
But Bochang’s absence is, in my opinion, most remarkable when considered in its contrast with Shoying’s enduring presence for her daughters, her extended family, and even herself. While it may have put her character through the lowest of lows, Bochang’s leave can also be seen as a plot device to highlight Shoying’s own fortitude and astonishing capacity for self-sufficiency and reliance… and when it comes to mourning his death, the women find it was precisely his absence all those years that ultimately shaped the strong characters they’d grown into.
Shoying’s indisputable excellence in both the traditionally-defined parental roles of provider as well as caretaker is a testament to her steadfastness, and a tribute to the single mothers among us. On a more feminist front, Shoying’s story is also a criticism of traditional societies that endure and perhaps even buttress toxic masculinity, embodied by her husband’s character. The matriarch’s strength hence has become both the lifeblood and bonding agent of three generations of the Chen family.
All that being said, the thing I love the most about Little Big Women is the glimpses it gave me into my own relationship with my mother. Like the girls, my mother became my principal caretaker, and at the same time also the closest person to me, when I was very young. Strong-willed, hard-headed and a tireless fighter without a doubt, she has managed to awe and frustrate me at the same time — two battling emotions not amiss in film. Much like the way Shoying’s girls mirror her, I often feel like a reflection of my own mom: both a copy and an inversion.
Sensitive, fragile, but ultimately immortal — that’s how Hsu beautifully portrays mother-daughter relationships in his film.
Stream the award-winning film on Netflix: