Release Date: June 30th, 2019
Duration: 90 mins.
Director: Hsieh Pei-ju
Writer: Hsieh Pei-ju (Script),
Starring: Tsai Jia-Yin, Samantha Ko, Yao Chang, Chang En-Wei, Lai Lene, Hsieh Tsu-wu,
One woman’s battle to lose fat forms the basis of this heavy drama that comes wrapped with some light comedy as the weight of societal expectations on the physical appearance of people is skewered.
The film opens with one of those sleek, wholeness-influenced commercials for the fictional Action Weight & Body Wellness Centre where a beautiful model (Lene Lai) runs and smiles, her voice-over urging, “Let us make our way to our better selves”. This ad and a chorus of other voices in the film link physical image with happiness. The message and imagery is seen frequently like insidious propaganda and this is the tip of the spear of body image that pierces the heart of main character Ying-juan (Tsai Jia-Yin) who struggles with how she looks and feels about herself.
A thirty-year-old woman who lives and works with her athletic, high-achieving mother (Samantha Ko) who runs a day care centre, Ying-juan is shown to be a woman passionate about cooking but beaten down into a spiral of self-hate and comfort eating junk food through parental neglect and the difficulty of living in a society so superficial and judgemental. At work, the kids affectionately label her Ms. Dinosaur, much to her chagrin, in public she endures a constant stream of micro-aggressions and insults over her weight. That she constantly lumbers around scenes looking miserable compared to other, slimmer, women and seeing the daily humiliations is pretty relentless and pretty affecting as we relate to her alienation and suffering.
This creates a relatable motivation to spur the character on her journey.
On her birthday, Ying-juan’s mother signs her up for a weight loss program without telling her and Ying-juan half-heartedly joins it. She gains more impetus when she meets Wu (Chang Yao-jen), a handsome deliveryman who surprisingly shows interest in her and she becomes more determined to lose some pounds. Doing so is a sizeable challenge for the woman, one that almost crushes her spirit as she has to contend with how difficult losing weight can be, her hopeful desire for Wu not enough to buoy her up on a sea of soul-devouring self-hatred caused by the prejudice of others about her size.
Tonally, the film mixes comedy and drama from the start, the advent of Wu’s appearance suggesting a trite feel-good character arc, but the story chooses to focus on the difficulties and damage endured when shaping ourselves to meet the expectations of others as the constant psychological pressure becomes too heavy a burden to bear for Ying-juan and so, while a traditional third act might offer hope, this one goes dark and the film ventures into some melodramatic moments. Some of it feels a little too OTT towards the end as the laughs dry up but the script signals its direction with Wu’s character backstory and his reality which is a bitter twist to the sweet image presented.
Indeed, in an earlier, less enlightened age, Ying-juan’s suffering would have been played purely for laughs but the film draws out pathos and acknowledges the damage the perceptions and behaviour of others have on Ying-juan’s own self-perception. Fantasy elements are tapped to accentuate Ying-juan’s inner-conflict as the pretty model from the commercial pops up to inspire and mock her at times, acting as a representative of the psychological demons lurking in the young woman which she has to battle. Ultimately, the downbeat ending suggests that the Ying-juan will have to accept society’s standards, something highlighted with the parallel story of Xiao-Yu, a student at the child care centre who is a secret cross-dresser who also has to give in to the status quo although the friendship he shares with Ying-juan offers a ray of hope with the idea that the support of others can guide people to better accept themselves whatever their situation.
Sometimes the tones are uneven but the film centres a necessary story about losing weight as we live through an age of body issues and invasive media and humanises the struggle enough to make it watchable.
My review for this film was first published on March 06th over at VCinema