Thursday, January 4, 2018

Review - Kuei-Mei, A Woman

January 4, 2018

Kuei-Mei, A Woman – Taiwan, 1985

Recently, an editorial appeared on Fox News detailing the curious reaction that a woman got when she posted a request for sandwich varieties. According to the woman, she made a sandwich for her husband every day as a way of saving money. I suspect it was also a way of expressing her continued affection for the person she married. In any other generation, this would have been a fairly innocuous request, and we would not have heard about it or the replies her inquiry received. That we have heard about it tells you everything you need to know about the messages left below her original request. They were, shall we say, unaccommodating, yet they clearly reflected their posters’ interpretation of a modern woman.

Yi Chang’s 1985 film Kuei-Mei, A Woman is many things, yet one of its most interesting elements is its depiction of “a woman.” It is one of the rare films in which that role is not static. In many movies, women are a step ahead of society, ready to do more, be more, and break down barriers. It is often male society – or that society’s slow acceptance of change – that hinders their wishes, yet eventually, because of their deeply-held convictions, they are able to bring about or hasten change in their immediate surroundings. In other words, it is the world around them that needs to grow up, not them themselves. I like many of these movies, and it is to this genre that Kuei-Mei, A Woman belongs, yet it does something that I especially admired. It shows a female character changing as a result of both the times and necessity.

In an early scene, we see Kuei-Mei (Hui San Yang) sit in long traditional clothing with a potential suitor, a widower named Hou (Lichun Lee), and admit to him that she has been with someone before. Nowadays this would not be an earth-shattering announcement, yet she does it in what appears to be the early 1960s. And the way she says it – in a soft voice, looking downward – shows that she knows the implications of making such an admission. Hou’s acceptance of that fact only strengthens her resolve to make their eventual marriage work. By the end of the film, the woman who believes that love, hard work, and a good marriage are all that are needed for one to be happy has been replaced by someone wiser and stronger, someone who still believes in love, but who also knows the trials and sacrifices that often come with it.

The film also offers a bit of a history lesson. In its early scenes, characters speak of arriving in Taiwan fairly recently and one gets the sense that they are still coming to grips with the notion that they aren’t going to be able to go back. In some of their conversations, there’s a bit of an unrealistic nostalgia for their former lives, as if all of them would have been successful and wealthy if not for the results of China’s civil war. Kuei-Mei seems at first like a woman trying to hold onto a notion of culture and decency that later generations will not necessarily adhere to, and as she changes, we see it in her hair style and choice of clothing, as well as in her words, some of which are given voice to in loud gestures and some uttered in near whispers to the children that will carry on her and her generation’s legacy.
The film follows Kuei-Mei and Hou through some rather tumultuous years. Hou has a gambling problem that has horrendous consequences for the family. At one point, he even suggests that they withdraw their pre-teen daughter (from his previous marriage) from school and send her to work as a servant. Eventually, Kuei-Mei and Hou find work as servants to a Chinese family in Japan, yet they can only take two of their children with them – and they have five. These are sacrifices no parent should have to make, and they never come without severe repercussions.

As we watch Kuei-Mei and Hou, we also get a glimpse of what Taiwan was going through on a global scale. We see evidence of Taiwan’s complicated relationship with Japan and the United States, its growing diplomatic isolation, the coming of its “economic miracle,” and the budding disillusionment of its youth. These are indeed heavy issues, and an entire film could be made about each of them. However, Chang wisely uses these issues to help viewers understand what is behind the characters’ decisions, and because of that, viewers will get a good sense of just how much Taiwanese society has been shaped by issues that were not entirely under its control.

As Kuei-Mei, Yang gives a truly stunning performance. We watch her go from a fragile, yet hopeful young woman to a wise one who is also a bit emotionally scarred, and the expression on her face when she receives a letter towards the end of the film is one of the most poignant and unforgettable images I’ve ever seen. Lee is equally memorable, however, for entirely different reasons. As Hou, he is often subdued, reacting to the things around him as one who feels both entitled and emotionally wronged would. He’s a pawn who thinks he should be a king, and every so often wounded feelings are expressed in violent outbursts. Lee allows us to see these building, and their eruptions are truly frightening.

Chang’s directing style is a bit like Ozu’s. From the opening scenes, we feel as if we are flies on a wall. When we first see Kuei-Mei, it is through the kitchen window, and instead of a close-up of her conflicted face, we see the entire kitchen. As I watched it, I got the sense that it was her sanctuary, the place where she could create and be alone, away from the constant efforts of her cousin to find her a match. Yi maintains this distant focus for much of the film, and I found it deeply moving. He also has the good sense to allow scenes to develop naturally, and nothing comes across as forced or out of character.

Unfortunately, like many releases of its kind, Kuei-Mei, A Woman has frequent translation problems, and some of them, in particular those related to tenses, have the potential to cause momentary confusion. There are also frequent misspellings, and the same word can be misspelled in the same way throughout the film. Also, as it nears its conclusion, the subtitles become even worse, as if someone was in a rush to finish and no longer cared about complete accuracy. This is an annoyance, and in truth I expected better of Central Motion Pictures. Still, I was greatly moved by the film. I cared for its characters and hoped they would attain happiness. In Kuei-Mei, we have a realistic person, someone who grows, matures, has setbacks, and must make difficult choices. It is a role I think everyone - not just women - will see a little of themselves in. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Taiwan)

3 and a half stars

*The version of the film I saw had a running time of 119 minutes. Wikipedia lists it as being 152 minutes.

*Kuei-Mei, A Woman won the Golden Horse Award for Best Feature Film in 1985.

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