Story telling from female lenses

Photo by Pei-Ju Hsieh

“How many of you are underestimated because of your appearance?” A sharp-looking weight loss instructor asked his audience in Heavy Craving, a debut feature film by Taiwanese director Pei-Ju Hsieh that explores fat-shaming, mainstream beauty standards and the social pressure to conform through the protagonist’s struggle to lose weight.

It is perhaps a fitting question for women in general. The film is to premiere soon at this year’s Vancouver International Women in Film Festival (VIWFF). 15 years in the running, the 2020 VIWFF will return to Vancity Theatre from March 3–8 and will showcase 44 selected short and feature-length films from a wide variety of genres by female-identifying filmmakers from all over the world.

Helping female filmmakers to thrive

This year’s film festival attracted over 900 submissions and a committee of 40 volunteers helped with the selection process according to Qiuli Wu, festival coordination & programs assistant of Women in Film and Television Vancouver (WIFTV).

“We have some specific criteria for the festival, such as at least three of the creative members of the team need to be females,” she says.

Despite women continuing to make strides in the industry, some areas are still lagging behind. For example, in the category of cinematography, only one film qualified. Based on statistics from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film in the United States, of the top 100 grossing films in 2019, only two percent of cinematographers were women.

Scene from Take Me Somewhere Nice. | Photo courtesy of International Women in Film Festival

Wu discusses some interesting gender differences using the film Take Me Somewhere Nice as an example, which is a road trip story about a girl who traveled with her cousin and her cousin’s friend to look for her father who she has never met before.

“It is no longer through the male gaze, which can make the film rather sexy, with a female director, when the main character is making love, her inner world was explored and she had the psychological necessity for it at that specific moment,” Wu says.

Her personal favourite this year was A First Farewell by Chinese director Wang Lina, a movie about the day to day lives of people in a rural Uighur village and how children are dealing with their Mandarin education and their uncertain future.

“It is pointing a political question in the way that children are indirectly forced to learn Mandarin. Their parents are telling them it is a necessity for them to pursue a better future. Despite what the adult world is reinforcing to the children, they only care about the purity of friendship and understand the value of it,” Wu says.

Embracing individuality

Away from the macroscopic view of the Uighur community that is gradually swallowed up by Chinese influence, movies such as Heavy Craving explore the identity issue on a more individual level.

The movie depicts an overweight aspiring chef’s journey to lose weight under both family and social pressure. The protagonist undergoes a weight-loss program in order to make everyone else happy but, in the process, she loses her most important quality as a chef – her taste buds.

“In media, we don’t often see different kinds of body types, so we tend to think something is wrong with ourselves if we are different. I want to have different body types on screen, so everyone can embrace their appearance,” says Hsieh, writer and director of the film.

According to her, the story came from her personal experience as a chubby teenager who used to be teased by her family and friends. Hsieh says the memory made her feel self-conscious and insecure about her body.

Scene from Heavy Craving. | Photo courtesy of Vancouver International Women in Film Festival

She started writing the story in 2014 right after finishing up an MFA degree from Columbia University. She says the first draft was a much darker story where the protagonist at some point died. After receiving feedback from people that they would like to see some hope in the story, she rewrote it. During the long revision process, it gradually became a comedy-drama. The story finally went into production in 2018.

Aside from the main character, the film also features two other supporting characters: a cross-dressing young boy and a young man who used to be overweight but now has bulimia as a result of unhealthy dieting.

“I want to make a contrast between the young boy who is a cross-dresser and the overweight main character, they both tried to change themselves to fit into society. Interestingly enough, sometimes people feel more harshly on body issues than LGBTQ topics. People are more judgmental about someone who is obese as if they are not making enough effort to change,” Hsieh says.

Ending with a note of self-acceptance, the movie raises the universal question again on whether it is worth it to lose one’s uniqueness in order to just fit into the normal standard of society.

WIFTV is the organizer behind the annual VIWFF, which is a non-profit society that has been in operation since 1989 to promote female professionals in the film and TV industry. Beyond the annual film festival that coincides with International Women’s Day, WIFTV also organizes ongoing events throughout the year such as the producers’ series where leading producers share their expertise with aspiring filmmakers.

“We promote giving women equal opportunity and access and we want to have more women on screen and behind the screen,” says Wu. “The festival is a platform for female filmmakers to showcase their films and connect with the wide audience as well as with their colleagues in the industry.”

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