If an estranged family member suddenly died, how would you feel? What would you do? The Netflix film Little Big Women explores just that.
Directed by Joseph Chen-Chieh Hsu, Little Big Women shows a Taiwanese family’s struggle with grief and frustration. On her seventieth birthday, the matriarch Lin Shoying hears shocking news of her estranged husband’s death. Unanswered questions pop up as she, her three daughters—Ching, Yu, and Jiajia—and her granddaughter Clementine prepare for the funeral. How did Shoying’s husband Chen Bochang spend his last couple decades? Who is Tsai Meilin, and why was her contact in her husband’s hospital records?
There are no easy answers in life.
The Impacts of an Absent Father and Husband
In his youth, Chen Bochang wooed Lin Shoying with love letters, married her, and used her family’s wealth to do business. But he didn’t have a knack for business, so he went into debt because of his failures, unlike Shoying, who ran a steady business as a street stall owner selling shrimp rolls. He struggled financially, and often came to see Shoying to ask for money.
Disgusting, right? Bochang was also a womanizer. A tiger can’t change its stripes, and Bochang never stopped playing with other women after his marriage. In one of Shoying’s memories, she chases down Bochang at another woman’s place. Ching and Yu, dressed in their elementary school uniforms, stand in the hall as their mother tries to confront their father who jumps out the window to escape.
With an unreliable husband who couldn’t stick around to be a good father, Shoying raises her daughters mostly on her own. Her struggles of wifehood and motherhood mold her into a strong matriarch who could support her family.
As the sole provider who’s also responsible for childrearing, Shoying is strict with her children, particularly her eldest two, Ching and Yu. Her tough love shows an aspect of Taiwanese family culture—how elders hold the younger generation in strict regard because they hope for a better life for their children.
Getting a stable job. Marrying an upright person from a good family background. Having children. It makes sense that Shoying wants her daughters to live their lives without going through the struggles that she went through, such as having to build a business from scratch and marrying a casanova. She wants her children and grandchildren to live stable, happy lives. Those well-wishing expectations, however, could place a lot of pressure on adult children.
As a child who grew up in a single-parent household, I can empathize with the three daughters. Ching grows up to be a free spirit who’s always compared to her father. “You’re just like your father,” Shoying remarks when she comments on Ching’s faults. It’s heartbreaking, especially for a child to hear that their character is so dislikable and such an ugly reminder of their absent parent. Ching accepts the harsh words with a bitter acceptance.
Like father, like daughter, Ching wants to divorce her husband who can’t accept her relationships with other guys—platonic or otherwise. While Bochang dies from lung cancer, Ching’s breast cancer comes back for the second time. Out of consideration for her mother’s turmoil dealing with the funeral, Ching hides the news from her family. For me, it was agonizing to see Ching wear a façade around her family as she deliberately lets them believe that she’s frivolous.
As the second daughter, Yu becomes a doctor due to familial pressures to succeed. At one point, Yu admits to her husband that her academic achievements were a way to gain her father’s attention. “I thought if I kept winning medals, Dad would remember to come home. But eventually, even when I graduated from med school, Dad never showed up again,” Yu says. Despite her white-collar job, she wishes for her daughter Clementine to have better options in life. Just as Shoying pressured her to become a doctor, Yu continues the cycle and pressures her daughter to study hard and plan for future schooling in the US.
Yu and Clementine’s experiences with academic expectations are similar to my own experiences. Growing up, I was pressured to study for long hours once I returned home from school. “High academic achievements pave the road to a better life” is a common belief amongst Asian parents. While Yu’s academic and career goals aligned with her mother’s expectations, Clementine’s simple desire to stay with her parents in Taiwan conflicts with Yu’s wish. This parent-child clash is also familiar to those from immigrant backgrounds.
As the youngest child, Jiajia takes over her mother’s restaurant, which grew from the humble beginnings of a street stall business, but she struggles to step out of Shoying’s shadow. The movie opens with Shoying acting as a restauranteur despite having passed the ownership to Jiajia. With Shoying unable to let go and enjoy her retirement, Jiajia finds herself in an awkward position where she has to override Shoying’s authority over the employees.
Imagine family drama mixed into work drama. Nobody wants that.
On top of preparing for the funeral, each woman in the family has their own troubles to face. Watching this movie was an eye-opener. There’s not a lot of action like in Western movies, but it successfully shows the complexities of familial bonds—the ups and downs in a relationship, the raw, sometimes ugly feelings of each character, and the undeniable love that ties everyone together.
The Heartache of the Wife and the Mistress
In a story about familial relationships, it’s probably hard to sympathize with the interloper such as Tsai Meilin. A middle-aged woman who works at a bar, Meilin is a devout Buddhist who often visits temples. She spent a decade with Chen Bochang before he passed away in the hospital.
Since Little Big Women mainly tells the story of Shoying and her family’s perspective, we only start to understand Tsai Meilin’s character towards the end. The movie builds up suspense as Shoying tries to confront Meilin. After all, who else can Shoying ask about her husband? Only Meilin will have the answers.
Although the anticipation for a dramatic confrontation is high, the actual conversation between Shoying and Meilin is somewhat anticlimactic. Meilin reveals how Bochang always thought of Shoying and their daughters, how he grieved for his past wrongs.
Both women are tied together through their love for Bochang. However, the conversation concludes with each woman feeling differently.
For Shoying, she finally receives closure for her estranged husband. The elderly woman had already moved on as she raised her children and grew her business. This final step allows Shoying to truly let go of the past. In contrast, Meilin mourns Bochang. Her love for the man remains fresh in her heart.
The movie ends with a mutual understanding between both women. Shoying’s reconciliation with her past leads her to offer her front-row seat at the funeral to Meilin. It’s a symbolic gesture as Meilin represents the grieving widow if Bochang had been able to dissolve his marriage with Shoying and remarried. While Meilin tears up as she attends the funeral among strangers, Shoying sings a nostalgic song, smiling as she rides a taxi through the city. The juxtaposition makes for a bittersweet yet fulfilling ending for the movie.
While the movie doesn’t take you on an emotional rollercoaster, the characters’ life stories unfold and reveal unembellished truths and feelings. It gradually grips your emotions. If you’re looking for a sentimental movie to watch this weekend, I recommend Little Big Women.