You can do anything you put your mind to. You are the master of your own destiny. The thing about self-improvement is that it puts all the weight on the individual. To an extent, we usually have more control over our circumstances than we think, but we don’t live our lives in a vacuum. Our perceptions and expectations of ourselves are linked to the feedback we get from the outside world. And if that feedback is nothing but negativity, it can make for a damaging cycle.
Ying-Juan is caught in that cycle. With a passion for food, she aspires to be a chef. But for now, she works as a dinner lady at the preschool run by her health-conscious mother. Ying-Juan is obese, and while some of the children make jokes about her, it is her mother who is cruelest to her, making no bones about how disgusted she is at her daughter’s weight. That’s why she signs Ying-Juan up for a weight loss programme.
Taiwanese writer-director Hsieh Pei-Ju grew up as an overweight teenager and the influence of her own life on Ying-Juan’s is obvious. She knows that it’s the little things: the way others underestimate you, the constant reminders of your difference, the perception that you have no worth or self-control. It’s not a lack of self-control but of motivation that holds Ying-Juan back. When asked by the intimidatingly gaunt health coach why she wants to lose weight, Ying responds honestly: “my mother made me.” The feedback she has been getting from the world has given her low self-esteem and she doesn’t really believe she can lose weight.
This begins to change when she strikes up two friendships. The first is with Xiao-Yu, a quiet schoolboy who loves to cross-dress, to the outrage of his mother. The second is with Wu, a slim delivery boy who used to be overweight as a teenager. The two of them bond over the names they were called by bullies. Confident and handsome, Wu seems like the poster boy for weight loss, a shining example of how slimming down can improve your entire life. But his new, thin life is not as perfect as it seems, as we learn in the kind of jarring tonal shift you come to expect from South East Asian cinema.
The film isn’t afraid to venture into darker territory in order to give depth to Ying’s perspective and stakes to her journey. These moments are where the film feels like it’s operating with the most honesty and they elevate what would otherwise be an easy but slight watch.
Heavy Craving isn’t really about weight loss or the pressure to conform to a certain body type. It’s about being able to express yourself in a world that has a very limited idea of you. And when the film manages to break free from its formulaic story, it can be surprisingly potent.
It’s probably good critic etiquette to end on some kind of pun related to weight loss or food. How about “It’ll leave you wanting seconds?”