“Little Big Women” is a most watchable dry-eyed weeper about a family of Taiwanese women coming to grips with death, disappointment, and divorce, and those are just the “Ds” in their litany of woe.
“Woe” is a bit strong here. “Downbeat” is a better descriptor for this immersive, well-acted, soapy and sentimental Taiwanese melodrama.
Everybody knows Mrs. Lin (Shu-Fang Chen). Her name is on every vendor’s lips as she walks the seafood market, selecting velvet shrimp, eels, milkfish and a lobster. She runs up a big bill.
Yes, she’s buying for a restuarant.
She has a regular taxi driver, and a favorite maudlin ballad she sings karaoke to on her rides (Installed in the cabs there, apparently).
And today is her “big day.” She’s turning 70 and her daughters have arranged a banquet.
That makes this the perfect day for her to hear from a husband she hasn’t spoken to in decades. And he’s calling from the hospital. He picked “today,” Mrs. Lin’s siblings later joke, “on purpose.” Because she has no sooner stopped in than he coughs, wheezes and dies.
Not going to spoil her party, she grouses. Daughter JiaJia (Ke-Fang Sun) runs the restaurant, and has gone to a lot of trouble. Daughter Yu (Vivian Hsu) is a plastic surgeon, and is coming with her husband and their smart cookie teenage daughter Clementine (Buffy Chen). And oldest daughter Wangching (Ying-Hsuan Hsieh) has given her last dance class of the day and is on her way.
Mom’s resentments don’t exactly melt away at this sudden death, but the daughters are torn. One has actually been in touch with Dad, just a bit. One has just been told she has cancer. “Divorce” floats around the family like cigarette smoke, which is a really good way to get cancer.
And Mom wants to know about this woman, Mrs. Tsai, who dropped her soon-to-be-late husband off at the hospital. How long had she known him? What’s their connection? Will she come to the funeral?
The Joseph Chen-Chieh Hsu (he also makes his feature directing debut) and Maya Huang script takes us on a trip through Taiwanese traditions, fads and rituals. The family debates what sort of funeral to have, Ms. Tsai may have an opinion on that. If it’s in a religion the family doesn’t belong to, rituals will have to be rehearsed, a priest arranged.
Clementine, being the youngest, is our surrogate here — asking questions about the granddad she never knew (flashbacks prompted by family memories fill us in), what they’re going to do and what they have to do first.
“A wake is not fun,” Granny tells her (in Chinese with English subtitles), but it is the first step in repaying “a debt I owe” her late husband, she tells her daughters and granddaughter.
I like the messy lives explored here, with every character having complications that are both a product of their upbringing and their response to it. We figure out which daughter is the most responsible for Mom, which is most like “Dad” and which is the most frustrated with how life has turned out.
Hsu is the most familiar actress in this cast (to me), but Chen has been a sturdy presence in Taiwanese since the ’60s. They’re all subtly expressive performers.
Despite the sadness and flashbacks — too few to truly flesh out the father, a ne’er do well womanizer — this is no “Joy Luck Club.” There’s little of the daughters weeping over how hard Mom has had it. Because Mom is a hardcase and doesn’t invite tears of sympathy.
Lacking even a hint of a light touch, it’s no “Farewell” either.
But “Little Big Women” is a perfectly watchable genre melodrama, an old-fashioned “women’s picture,” with sentiment, intricate relationships, intrigue and not-too-heavy-to-take heartbreak.
MPA Rating: TV-14
Cast: Shu-Fang Chen, Ying-Hsuan Hsieh, Vivian Hsu, Ke-Fang Sun and Buffy Chen
Credits: Directed by Joseph Chin-Chieh Hsu, script by Joseph Chen-Chieh Hsu and Maya Huang. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:03