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We’ve seen them before: those soft-focus ads of a ridiculously fit young woman running on the beach or something, preaching about becoming our “better selves” through a strict wellness program — for the low, low cost of just $89.95 per month. One of those fantastical spots fires the opening salvo in tyro director Hsieh Pei-ju’s Heavy Craving, a thoroughly winning, if familiar, comedy-drama about a woman compelled to lose weight for all the wrong reasons, and sadly some valid ones.
While not quite riding the body positivity wave that’s sweeping some parts of the world, writer-director Hsieh builds a traditional feminist realization-and-acceptance narrative around the little indignities and everyday humiliations suffered by those of us carrying a few extra pounds, especially in image-obsessed Asia — though in reality it’s an issue scores deal with around the world. Hsieh has two things going for her, though. The first is a more grounded take on the material than the underdog goofiness of Anne Fletcher’s Dumplin’ or Kim Yong-hwa’s 200 Pounds Beauty, which utterly defeated its purpose. The second is first-timer Tsai Jia-yin in a star-making turn balancing rage, frustration, despair and, yes, joy to perfection.
Heavy Craving should earn a modest following around Asia, and will find a home in Asia-focused festivals, but its accessibility and universality should also make it a candidate for limited release overseas (though it’s like to find its widest audience on streaming platforms).
Thirty-year-old chef Jiang Ying-juan (Tsai) clocks in it a robust 230 pounds, much to the chagrin of her slim mother, Shu-fen (Samantha Ko), and to the nasty pleasure of the kids at the learning center Shu-fen runs and Ying-juan cooks at. Shu-fen does her best to spin her embarrassment over the way her daughter looks into concern, finally signing her up for a course at the Action Weight and Body Wellness Center (of the opening ad), despite Ying-juan’s complete and total disinterest in weight loss. She’s used to the ridiculing, but has made peace with her body. She agrees only in order to get her mother to allow her to plan the center’s meals.
Ying-juan’s weight loss program eventually goes off the rails, but only after the requisite dramatic turns and beats expected from a film like Heavy Craving. Naturally, she attracts a pair of misfit buddies and forms an outsiders’ club with them, which makes them all better, more secure people. One is a chipper courier, Wu (Yao Chang), who has weight and body issues of his own; the other is Xiao-yu (Chang En-wei), a little boy at the learning center who likes to wear girls’ clothing. The story goes pretty much where it should after the prescribed painful revelations, crushing betrayals and open-hearted forgiveness.
Heavy Craving is aggressively heartwarming, and it can be a bit on the nose at times (case in point, Ying-juan’s “fight” with her ideal self), but that doesn’t mean Hsieh lets the shameful treatment the overweight deal with slide by. When a pervy neighbor gropes Ying-juan in their shared stairwell, no one believes he’d grab a “pig like her.” And for all the empowering platitudes the life coach at the weight loss center spews, he’s not wrong when he says each of his clients is judged by the rest of us because of their weight. The disappointments and insults drive Ying-juan to eating emotionally, trapping her in a self-fulfilling cycle. It’s a familiar message, but one that can’t be uttered enough.
Cinematographer Chang Hao-jan’s images are crisp and bright, particularly in sequences when Ying-juan is gleefully puttering about the kitchen, and Lin Hung-tao’s jaunty score keeps things from getting too grim. Ultimately it’s Tsai’s film, and she’s more than up to the task in a funny, human and completely relatable performance. She effortlessly toggles between charming and self-assured and vulnerable and wounded, without ever letting Ying-juan become someone to be pitied. She’s not pitiable, she’s just fat, and in a perfect world Tsai will be a movie star.
Production company: While Films
Cast: Tsai Jia-yin, Samantha Ko, Yao Chang, Chang En-wei, William Hsieh, Lene Lai
Director-screenwriter: Hsieh Pei-ju
Producers: Wang Jing, E. N. Lee
Director of photography: Chang Hao-jan
Production designer: Yao Kuo-chen
Costume designer: Michelle Wang
Editor: Tang Yi-fei
Music: Lin Hung-tao
Casting: Yu Hu-ting
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: Rediance
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