Lovely, tender heartbreaks in ‘Little Big Women’

WHEN a film, after a few minutes or so, opens with a  karaoke, and then, minutes more, another song, it usually spells annoying disaster. But that is not the case with this film from Taiwan, called Little Big Women.

The singer is Lin Xiu Ying (Sho Ying in the subtitle), a woman now in her 70s, who begins as a roadside vendor of shrimp rolls and goes on to become a famous owner of a restaurant in Tainan. She gives birth to three daughters (although…no spoiler here) and takes care of them long after her husband abandons her.

The film begins with Sho Ying at the wet market, handling fish with her bare hands, greeting vendors as friends she has known for years. That day, she is turning over the management of the famed restaurant to her youngest daughter, but it seems she is not yet ready to relegate her duties. There are two other daughters, traditionally more successful in that one has become a world-renowned dancer and the other a plastic surgeon in Taipei.

That day, Sho Ying is going to fetch her granddaughter at the train terminal. Scenes after, we will all be meeting the daughters and this granddaughter in a sudden reunion. On the day of their mother’s birthday, their father, who has not been seen in decades by Sho Ying, dies.

Little Big Women marches almost with such haste until the death of the father, remiss with his obligations, as if the filmmakers want to settle down immediately to the business of remembrances, guilt and recriminations. We are not complaining of course—the narrative of this Taiwanese family reminds us greatly how the Chinese notion of filial duty is remarkably familiar to us, Filipinos, as well. There is the fact of the family name—tarnish it and you volunteer to sink into oblivion if only to assuage your ancestors of the shame you have inflicted on the clan and its reputation.

As the wake begins, the film slows down, but we are only willing eavesdroppers as we savor the nuances of apologies and the elusive, cryptic signs of forgiveness that are just too difficult to discern, if they manifest at all. What we get are other tales: the loves of Aching, the loyalties of Ayu, and the quiet rebellion of Jiajia.

All beautiful and elegant, all elegant and vulnerable. These are the daughters who contend with the plots weaving their mother into her past and the present, disentangling, troubling and threatening, always half-told, always in the shadows. Gradually, and silently, like the days of the wake, we learn about how their father had shamed the Lin family, Sho Ying’s own. We begin to understand how some uncles from the mother’s side do not come to the birthday party nor to the wake. We grudgingly look at the uncle who brags how he has forgotten (sometimes) the past but points to the empty chairs for the uncles who have become grumpier as they grow older.

Sins against the clan never age, really; they just turn sour and more terrible each season.

What saves the family of this grand woman from crumbling is her own steadfastness, and the daughters all too willing to stay by their mother’s side. And their mother does not always have sweet words for them. At one of their quiet confrontations (no screaming matches here, a lesson for our local filmmakers and scriptwriters), the mother blurts out how it has been useless for her to have ever given birth to them.

Now, what is a death of a husband long gone from the family, whose last wish is to return to the city of her beloved family, and the wake that follows it, without secrets and disclosures?

Joseph Hsu indeed reengineers melodrama in

Little Big Women by creating out of what could have been dark froths a sublime fusion of tragedy, redemption, bittersweetness, imperfect humanity and comedy.

It is the technique of the filmmakers to use the granddaughter as a foil for the set behaviors of the daughters. For the young girl, she is the person with a bright and curious mind accompanying her grandmother as they venture into the district of nightclubs and assignations. There, her grandfather is a gallant customer, a Mr. Chen. Ellipses after ellipses, the past of the family is a procession that now intrudes into their lives: a blue coat left at the hospital, right beside the corpse; a young, smart woman from Singapore who visits Sho Ying and brings tears to her eyes where the death of her husband does not; and, finally, the encounter with Ms. Tsai, the woman who took care of Sho Ying’s husband in his old age.

“Will you confront her [Ms. Tsai]?,” the granddaughter asks her grandmother. Sho Ying does “confront” the other woman as they move from one god to another, in a far-off temple, until they reach the God of Love.

No hugs are necessary between Miss Tsai and Sho Ying. And no slapping either. The embraces between mother and daughters are sparse but when they come, they do not release the characters from the past; instead they assure everyone of the power of fate.

There is a social conflict that happens in the film that we all can relate to, and this is the decency of having a birthday party when a wake is going on.

The film resolves that with the song at the birthday party that speaks of a love that is not meant for us,

and at the end, when, like in the opening, Madam Sho Ying grabs the karaoke mic from the back of the taxi chair and sings once more the song “Taste of Loneliness.”

Jong Keng’s cinematography is sheer nostalgia as it captures a city in Taiwan, wearing proudly its ruins and heart for all to sense and weep with. 

It is a joy to discover Hsieh Ying-xuan, as the eldest daughter, and Vivian Hsu, the second daughter, and Ding Ning as Ms. Tsai.

As Sho-Ying, Chen Shu-fang is magisterial, a dowager commanding an empire of bittersweet memories. With a voice that hides a rasp, she is love incarnate, a mother whose life makes sense only because she always comes to terms with the past.

Little Big Women is currently streaming on Netflix.