In a moment of rage, a man destroys his entire life. Now destitute with three children to care for, he struggles to make ends meet in this Taiwanese melodrama from director Hsin Chi.
And what a melodrama it is. There is a lot of crying in The Rice Dumpling Vendors. The characters cry when they’re sad, but then they also cry when they are happy. They cry at being separated, and they cry when they fight, and all up they seem to spend the majority of the film bawling their eyes out at one another. Hsin smartly includes some well-placed moments of levity and humour, but it is ultimately a pretty maudlin experience all round.
The film stars Cai Yang Ming as Tsi-bing, a successful married businessman who takes on a lover. That lover then conspires with a criminal gang to implicate Tsi-bing’s wife (Jin Mei) in an affair of her own, and then to defraud Tsi-bing of his entire life savings. After forcing his wife out and then losing his job, Tsi-bing moves into a shack in a poor area of Taipei while trying to care for his three young children. When he is injured in an workplace accident, that task becomes almost insurmountable.
Hsin Chi trained in filmmaking in Japan, which controlled the island of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 and which arguably had as much a cultural influence in the 20th century as China did. It feels Japanese, both tonally and aesthetically. The high contrast black and white photography, the Cinemascope-scale presentation, and the melodramatic focus on social issues all instinctively feel like the work of a Japanese director. If the cast were not speaking Mandarin Chinese, the illusion might well be complete.
It is interesting that The Rice Dumpling Vendors eschews the traditional use of a struggling or fallen woman in favour of a male protagonist. What is more, he is one played without sympathy in the film’s early scenes. Tsi-bing does not simply abandon his wife; he actively throws her out of their house and slaps her violently in the face. When his young son tries to stop his assault, Tsi-bing kicks him to the floor. He aggressively follows a double standard, too. As a man he feels entitled to have an affair, but for his wife to do the same is repulsive to him. Of course his wife has not even had the affair of which he accuses her, but he is too jealous and hostile to believe her pleas. It is a lot with which to saddle a character if your goal is to later engender sympathy for them. Much of the heavy lifting is thus done by his children: chiefly his daughter Siu-kuan and son Hong-bun. Their suffering and struggle to help make ends meet is the emotional path into the family drama.
The film is attractively shot, and boasts a variety of genre moments including drama, tragedy, and crime thriller. While the print has been carefully restored by the Taiwan Film Institute, it was in particularly bad condition after decades of neglect. Frames have been visibly cut out, giving some scenes a jerky, uneven quality. It also seems very likely that entire scenes have been lost. It is easy enough to pick up the story from the extant narrative, but it is a minor challenge. Frankly it is a miracle that the film is available in this restored form at all.
Location shoots throughout the film provide a valuable look at Taipei’s poorer areas in the late 1960s. At the time of production the country was still labouring under martial law while enjoying rapid post-war economic growth. The Rice Dumpling Vendors is a sobering reminder that not all Taiwanese shared in that growing prosperity. It is a well-crafted insight into a difficult time, and a splendid example of its genre.