Ying-juan (Tsai Jia-yin) is a 30 year-old woman, still living with her mother and working as a cook at her mother’s child care centre. She is overweight: the children at her workplace tease her, neighbours resent and bully her, and her mother constantly harasses her to lose weight. Driven to her wit’s end, unexpected support comes from the local delivery driver and a young boy addicted to cross-dressing.
Heavy Craving is a surprisingly great Taiwanese blend of comedy and drama. Films focused on overweight protagonists do not have the strongest track record in Asia – indeed they do not have the most ideal level of quality in film generally. It is too easy to make crass and easy jokes out of an obese protagonist, and even easier to turn extreme weight loss into some form of laudable achievement. In the hands of director Hsieh Pei-ju, Heavy Craving largely side-steps such hazards: while there are jokes at Ying-juan’s expense, the film also takes the time to show how such jokes hurt. At the same time the film does not hide the social pressures to form an ideal weight and body shape. Most importantly of all, it puts Ying-juan firmly in charge of her own decisions.
What a tremendous and entertaining character she is. She balances low self-esteem with a surprising rebellious streak. A strong sense of social justice lies just beneath the surface, emerging when it counts and – to her enormous credit – when the personal risk is greatest. Newcomer Tsai Jia-yin is spectacular here. She is not simply gifted at both comedy and drama; she manages to filter her talents through a superb sense of realism. We have all likely met a Ying-juan, and probably liked her as well. The year is still relatively young, but I feel I have just watched one of it’s best performances.
One of the film’s most interesting aspects is the introduction of Xiao-yu, a young boy that Ying-juan discovers trying on a dress in one of the classrooms. It turns out he has been cross-dressing for some time. It upsets his mother deeply, and since being bounced from one child psychologist to another, he has started to cross-dress in secret so as to no longer upset his mother so much. This plot development is presented in a naturalistic fashion and with commendable sensitivity. Chang En-wei is a gifted young performer, and Hsieh’s direction pulls out a remarkably believable and troubled boy whose innocent hobby thrives with Ying-juan’s encouragement.
The film does occasionally stray into maudlin territory, with one sub-plot involving bulimia feeling more like a public service announcement than part of a drama. It also slips now and then into melodrama, but to be honest this is a regular feature of much of Taiwan’s screen drama rather than a flaw. Beyond the odd misstep the film is tremendous. It is well-shot and edited, features the occasional well-placed fantasy sequences, and comes peppered with pitch-perfect gags and caustic dialogue. It is all wonderfully entertaining stuff, continuing Taiwan’s rich tradition of high quality popular filmmaking. When it comes to writing up year’s best lists, Heavy Craving is the first serious contender of the year.
Heavy Craving is playing this week at the Osaka Asian Film Festival.