Big Little Women tells the love, loss and grief of three generations of Tainan (Southern Taiwanese city) women. This film was the box office champion in Taiwan at the end of 2020. It was nominated for six Golden Horse Award categories and won one by the new-found Taiwanese national treasure Shu-Fang Chen in Best Leading Actress.
As a commercially successful film, Big Little Women takes a less traveled road to present the lives and struggles of Taiwanese women of different generations in a way that is as faithful as possible.
This film explores one of the rare themes in mainstream Taiwanese films in terms of diving into the outer struggles and inner sorrow of an elder women. The protagonist, Xiu-Yin Lin has raised three daughters all by herself since her husband’s frequent disappearances. Being a traditional and self-reliant women, she has never agreed to divorce or given up the title of a wife, despite her husband’s constant infidelity and irresponsibility. Instead, she starts a small business selling prawn rolls to provide for her daughters and it grows to a well-respected restaurant in the local community. #
The three daughters become a successful plastic surgeon, a prestigious dancer and a manager who is to inherit the family business restaurant respectively. At a ripen age, Xiu-Yin seems to start reaping the fruits of hard-work and efforts in her early years, yet the re-appearance of her long-time absent husband disrupts her peaceful and prosperous life.
Their lives and the people they have chosen to become can largely be attributed to the influence of early separation with a parent
The story takes great length to present the consequences of an absent father and husband on each of the characters. Xiu-Yin clings to long-accumulated resentment against her husband and his long-term companion. The three daughters, on the other hand, each have their own way of dealing with trauma, grief and unspoken family secrets. Their lives and the people they have chosen to become can largely be attributed to the influence of early separation from a parent.
Although the male director’s lens might have romanticised and glorified the struggles these women have gone through for their family name and ‘respectability’, each of them are characterised three-dimensionally. Especially, the 2018 Golden-Horse Award winner Yin-Hsuan Hsieh, as the free-spirited and seemingly layback eldest sister, gives a dazzling performance on her take of a forever wandering woman unwilling to be bound by any obligations. Such characters and personalities are rarely absolved from condemnation by traditional Taiwanese values, yet her personal issues and her take on her father’s absence by mirroring some of his attitudes in relationships gives this character the complexity that she deserves.
she dissects the respectable yet grudge-holding matriarch into numerous facades
Shu-Fang Chen as Xiu-Yin also delivers the character of the mother exemplarily. As an experienced actress who appears in various Taiwanese Min-Nang-speaking soap operas and dramas, she dissects the respectable yet grudge-holding matriarch into numerous facades. Not limited by the archetypal mother figure (as the script dangerously borders on), she explores Xiu-Yin’s struggles and oscillations between the roles of mother, wife, daughter and upholder of traditional values.
Although her reconciliation between these conflicts at the end of the film would be very unlikely in her real-life counterparts, which reduces its authenticity, the emotional twists and the great journey Xiu-Yin takes to come to terms with the traditional shackles which she held on to for the bulk of her life gives this woman unchallenged nuances and complexities. Shu-Fang Chen’s recognition of Golden Horse Award is not only well-deserving but also sets great precedence for acknowledging the representation of complicated female characters in Taiwanese cinema.
On the other hand, a big regret in Big Little Women’s filming is the missed opportunity to take more advantage of presenting a range of Tainan’s signature cuisines and historical street views as one of the oldest and most culturally vibrant cities in Taiwan. These choices if taken would certainly distinct the film from obscurity and construct the atmosphere of tradition and historicism to interweave with the story’s central theme.
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