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Kuei-mei, a Woman

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For a brief spell in the early 80s, the "social realism" movement in Taiwanese cinema outdid even Hong Kong martial-arts epics at the box office throughout most of southeast Asia. Most of its output, to be sure, aimed to titillate: exposes of country girls' lives gone astray. But a good number of films offered cogent looks at the effects of the island's rapid industrialization and social transformation. One of these was Kuei-mei, a Woman by Chang Yi, a talented director who has yet to achieve the international prominence of his younger contemporaries Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. This 1985 film (whose Chinese title would translate literally as "Such Is My Life") tracks the life of the eponymous heroine through the three decades after her escape from the mainland. She arrives in the early 50s without a family but reluctantly marries and takes over her husband's household. She also gets a job as a waitress, setting out to better her family's lot in life through tenacity and hard work--in spite of a wastrel spouse, wayward children, and cruel bosses. In the end she triumphs over adversity, becoming a restaurant owner and holding her family together. Her case, typical of legions of mainlanders who came to Taiwan to start anew, is the stuff of melodrama, but Chang wisely eschews sensationalism, adopting instead an understated tone that reinforces the heroine's quiet strength and dignity. And he fills the background with plenty of richly informative details about a changing Taipei and its colorful denizens. Yang Huey-sian, Taiwan's Meryl Streep, gained and then lost 30 pounds for the title role; her portrayal is both honest and poignant. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, December 19, 6:00, 443-3737.

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