Heavy Craving (Taiwan, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

One woman’s battle to lose weight forms the basis of this heavy drama that comes wrapped with some light comedy as the burden of societal expectations on individual physical appearance is skewered.

Hsieh Pei-ju’s film opens with one of those sleek, wholeness-influenced commercials for the fictional Action Weight & Body Wellness Centre where a beautiful model runs and smiles, her voice-over urging, “Let us make our way to our better selves”. This ad and a chorus of other voices in the film link physical image with happiness. The message and imagery is seen frequently like insidious propaganda. It’s the tip of the spear of body image that pierces the heart of a protagonist who struggles with how she looks and feels about herself.

Thirty-year-old Ying-juan (Tsai Jia-yin) lives and works with her athletic, high-achieving mother Shu-fen (Samantha Ko), who runs a day care center. Although Ying-juan is shown to be a woman passionate about cooking, she has also been beaten down into a spiral of self-hate. Parental neglect and the difficulty of living in a society so superficial and judgmental has caused her to seek comfort in eating junk food. At work, the kids affectionately label her “Ms. Dinosaur”, much to her chagrin, while in public she endures a constant stream of micro-aggressions and insults over her weight. Seeing her lumbering around looking miserable compared to other, slimmer, women and enduring various humiliations prompts the viewer to empathize with her sense of alienation and creates a relatable motivation to spur Ying-juan on her journey.

On her birthday, Ying-juan’s mother signs her up for a weight loss program without telling her and Ying-juan half-heartedly joins it. She gains more impetus when she meets handsome deliveryman Wu (Yao Chang), who surprisingly shows interest in her and becomes more determined to lose some pounds. Doing so is a sizeable challenge that almost crushes her spirit as she has to contend with how difficult losing weight can be. Her hopeful desire for Wu is not enough to buoy her up when faced with the prejudice of others.

Tonally, the film mixes comedy and drama. The advent of Wu’s appearance suggesting a trite feel-good character arc, but the story chooses to focus on the difficulties and damage endured when shaping ourselves to meet the expectations of others as the constant psychological pressure takes its toll on Ying-juan. So, while a traditional third act might offer hope, this one goes dark and the film ventures into melodramatic territory. Some of it feels a little too exaggerated as the laughs dry up towards the end. But the script signals its direction with Wu’s character backstory, which adds a bitter twist to the sweet image presented.

Indeed, in an earlier, less enlightened age, Ying-juan’s suffering would have been played purely for laughs but the film draws out pathos while acknowledging the damage that the perceptions and behavior of others have on Ying-juan’s self-perception. Fantasy elements are tapped to accentuate Ying-juan’s inner-conflict as the pretty model from the commercial occasionally pops up to inspire and mock her, acting as a representative of lurking psychological demons. Ultimately, the downbeat ending suggests that Ying-juan will have to accept society’s standards, something highlighted with the parallel story of Xiao-Yu (Chang En-wei), a student at the child care center who is a secret cross-dresser. He also has to give in to the status quo although the friendship he shares with Ying-juan offers a ray of hope with the idea that the support of others can guide people to better accept themselves whatever their situation.

Sometimes the tones are uneven but Heavy Craving tells a necessary story about losing weight in an age of body issues and invasive media while humanizing the struggle enough to make it watchable.

Heavy Craving is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 8 and 12.