WTF ASIA 256: Kuei-Mei, A Woman (1985)

It’s hard being a stepmother.


Available in Canadathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 121 minutes.




Four adults are eating watermelon while a couple of boys goof around. It takes a little while to work out what is going on, but it soon becomes clear. The mother of the boys tells them to get her cousin, the titular Kuei-mei, so that she can meet Momma Chai. The boys don’t want to go, but their mother orders them to go.

The boys go to see Kuei-mei, who is working in the kitchen while everyone else is eating watermelon. They tell her that Mrs. Chai is here to introduce her to a man, but Kuei-mei seems to be in no hurry to go anywhere, continuing her chores and really hesitating before going to see Mrs. Chai and this man. Eventually, though, she checks her reflection in a mirror and walks out.

An obviously uncomfortable Kuei-mei meets with Mrs. Chai and a Mr. Hou. Mrs. Chai provides some information about him. He is originally from Nanking. He works in a restaurant that is managed by a foreigner. He doesn’t drink or smoke, mostly because the manager forbids it. Does he play mahjong? Erm…sometimes, he replies. There is a bit of an argument among Kuei-mei’s relatives over who gambles worse, but the point is that Kuei-mei does not gamble, has no bad habits, and is a hard worker. Kuei-mei is silent throughout all of this.

Kuei-mei and Hou Yung-nien go on a date…sort of. Kuei-mei accidentally steps in sticky dirt…or crap. Probably crap. Yung-nien nicely scrapes it off of her shoe. Anyways, he tells her a little bit about his family. He has three “wild” kids, 10, 8, and 3.

Back at home, Kuei-mei tries to sleep, but her cousin is squabbling with her husband again. The husband disapproves of letting Kuei-mei marry a widower. Her cousin argues that he just wants a concubine, which he cannot afford on his paltry salary.

Kuei-mei goes to the Hou residence. It is hidden among a bunch of other homes, so she has to ask for directions a couple of times. Eventually, she gets to the right place, and…you cannot tell here, but that little boy’s shorts are around his ankles and his dick is all out. His father had carried him in here like that. I guess that he leaves to get changed, so the kid’s sister pulls his shorts up. The three walk over to Kuei-mei and glare at her. She asks the youngest what his name is, but the sister carries him outside and the older brother follows. I guess that, unlike the match, this visit was not arranged.

After what seems like an eternity, Yung-nien greets Kuei-mei. He tries to pour some water for her, but it appears that the jug was almost empty. I guess that this is all a metaphor for something. Anyways, Kuei-mei tells him that she wants to be clear about her past as well. Back home, she was engaged. Yung-nien says that Mrs. Chai had told him that. Well, anyways, when the war between the Nationalists and the Communists happened, she and her cousin fled from the Mainland to Taiwan. As for the others, Kuei-mei doesn’t know. She tells Yung-nien that she doesn’t want to hide anything from him. She says that…she was with her fiancé…this isn’t her first time. Yung-nien sighs in thought, as if we didn’t just see his three children. Kuei-mei offers to cut things off right now if he disapproves.

Smash-cut to the wedding. Kuei-mei attempts to put on a smile. The kids…not so much.

Kuei-mei is preparing lunch when the daughter, Cheng-fang, tells her brothers to come with her to Mrs. Chai. Kuei-mei tells them to stay, but Cheng-fang snaps at her, yelling that she is not her mother. She storms out, carrying little Cheng-hsing with her. The other brother, Cheng-chuan, kind of looks at Kuei-mei with resignation until his sister calls out to him, and then he leaves.

One rainy evening, Kuei-mei walks outside using an umbrella and carrying a second one. She goes to a hotel and makes her way to the kitchen. One of the staff members recognizes her from her wedding to Yung-nien and points her to…where her husband is. He is in a pantry room with a group of other staff members…playing mahjong. He asks her why she is here, and she tells him that she brought an umbrella for him because it is raining. Anyways, back in the kitchen, one of the cooks puts together a wrap of food for Kuei-mei to take home: pieces of meals that the customers barely touched. Erm…well…that’s nice of him…I guess? Don’t want to waste food either.

Kuei-mei throws that garbage into the garbage on the way back home.

Yung-nien comes home with some honeyed jujubes. Kuei-mei is surprised to see them in Taiwan, Yung-nien says that he got them from Chao’s sailor brother-in-law, who imported them from Hong Kong. She worries that they might be expensive, but Yung-nien tells her that he had won some money. Kuei-mei frowns and puts the jujubes aside, expressing disapproval of him gambling at work. Yung-nien tells her that no one is watching. Then they can eat them together tomorrow, she says.

Yung-nien goes to eat the food that Kuei-mei had brought back from the hotel. She follows him and sets out some food that she had actually cooked. Surprised, Yung-nien asks what happened to the food from the hotel. Kuei-mei tells her that she threw it, and doesn’t answer when he asks why. He seems about to eat, but the anger overcomes him. She thinks it’s dirty? Waiters are used to eating other people’s leftovers. Fuck your dignity, he shouts, and he storms off without eating anything.  

Kuei-mei goes to the bedroom…THE bedroom. Whispering, she asks if Yung-nien is asleep. He says that he is. Right. Well, she tells him that she didn’t mean it; that she doesn’t look down on him. She married him and will be with him forever. She simply believes that they should eat their own food instead of other people’s leftovers. While cleaning his fingers and…his ear, I think…Kuei-mei starts talking about them starting their own restaurant one day. A small one is fine. That talk about long-term planning, and perhaps her leg being on his crotch, breaks down Yung-nien’s armor of anger…and turns him horny. At this point, Kuei-mei basically sextorts him into quitting gambling. Yung-nien horny-promises to stop, saying that he would be a dog if he does. All right, time for sex.

Another time-jump and Kuei-mei is however many months pregnant. Yung-nien returns from work early…because he quit. He had enough of his foreign boss. Well…technically…aren’t they all from the…ah, well. Not gonna litigate the national status of Taiwan in the 1960s.

Anyways, Kuei-mei and Cheng-hsing go to see…I guess someone who works at the hotel. Or a friend. He tells her that Yung-nien had some other guys were caught gambling at work. Foreigners are strict about that, so Yung-nien was fired. Kuei-mei is quiet and stoic. She also graciously declines a gift for New Year’s from the man’s wife as she leaves.

Kuei-mei brings some jewelry to Yung-nien, the last that she had taken from home. She tells him that she was hoping to save it for the baby, but is giving it to him to pay off his debts. They will just have to find another way to pay for things once the baby is born. But she pleads with him to stop gambling, or else he will destroy the family. He says that he wants to win, to buy something good for her. He says that she thinks that he doesn’t care about the family. She hugs him and tells him that she knows that he cares. All is right again.

Another time-jump and a very very pregnant Kuei-mei and Cheng-hsing go to some apartment complex so she can borrow some money. The loan…erm…officer, takes back 3% of interest first. Kuei-mei says that she understands, that she would not do this at all if not for the baby. She fingerprints the documentation and takes the money. I am not sure how much money that is, but it is enough for her to need it.

Cheng-hsin and Cheng-chuan are horsing around when Kuei-mei tells them to come to dinner. She notices them tussling over something…what is it? A bunch of gambling chips…or something for gambling. Enraged, Kuei-mei grabs Cheng-chuan’s hand and smacks it several times. She lets him rub his palm for a bit before asking where his father is. Chen’s. With what money? Kuei-mei goes to look at her purse, only to find it empty. She walks out.

Kuei-mei barges into Chen’s and demands that Yung-nien give back her money. He feigns ignorance. But Yung-nien insists. A woman, I guess that that is Chen, suggests that Yung-nien go home, but he insists that he is winning. Kuei-mei looks around and finds a…knife. She grabs it and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t give back the money. And then her water breaks.   

Erm, let’s just assume that everyone made it to the hospital in time. In any case, Kuei-mei gives birth to twins. Kuei-mei’s cousin is there, saying how great it is that she has a boy and a girl. Yung-nien seems more concerned that they have to pay for things two-times over. Kuei-mei’s cousin’s husband is waiting outside due to…problems? She probably means the smoking. Yung-nien goes to keep him company. After he leaves, Kuei-mei’s cousin asks if Yung-nien still gambles. Kuei-mei gives a somewhat cryptic response. Well, did he find a job? It is too hard to find one with the economy being so bad. She says that she hates it sometimes and wishes that she could leave. It’s their fate, says her cousin; they have to stay with whomever they marry, but it would be better to not get married. She talks about her neighbor, Miss Wu, who works as a servant; free food, free room, free from having to take care of a man. And she gets paid for it.

One evening when the family is all together, Yung-nien goes over to Cheng-fang. He tells her that she is his smartest child, right in front of his other four children. He says that he has not fared well this year, but Uncle Chao offered to give her a job at a dental clinic. I take it that Yung-nien did not bring this up with Kuei-mei beforehand, as she immediately protests that Cheng-fang should study in school instead of being a maid. Yung-nien counters that he doesn’t want this, but it is one more job offer than what he has received. Kuei-mei says that a job will not help if he keeps gambling. He asks if she has seen him gambling recently, which is…not quite a denial. Of course, Cheng-chuan says that he was gambling just yesterday. Yung-nien continues to play the victim, daring Kuei-mei to say that this is his fault when IT IS HIS FAULT. He tells her that she should pay for Cheng-fang’s schooling.

It is at this moment that a neighbor knocks at the door, rather forcefully. Cheng-chuan goes to answer it. The neighbor asks if Yung-nien is home. No. Oh, what a coincidence that Yung-nien is not home every single time that he comes around to ask for the money owed to him for rice. And it is not even that much money. The neighbor says that Yung-nien should not disgrace himself in the neighborhood. He swears at Cheng-chuan before leaving in a huff.

One of the twins starts crying as Cheng-chuan comes back. Then the other one. Yung-nien shuffles off to…somewhere as Cheng-fang lays her head down. Kuei-mei goes to try to console her, but Cheng-fang rebukes her, exclaiming that she doesn’t want to go to school and that it is better to be a maid. Then she runs off.

Kuei-mei’s cousin takes her to a…very fancy house. The Wens are hiring servants. Not just servants, but married couples as servants, with the reasoning that married couples are more reliable. The Wens are going to Japan on business. The servants will be accompanying them and can bring two children. Kuei-mei says that she has five children, but her cousin tries to downplay that; saying that allowing any children is quite generous. Did…The Simpsons get their “two free passes” thing from this? Anyways, this is a great offer. She will be paid in American dollars, not Itchy & Scratchy money. Additionally, Yung-nien will have no place to gamble in Japan. I don’t know how her cousin figures that.

Yung-nien is not excited about this when Kuei-mei tells him about the offer. Japan? The Japanese killed his uncle in Nanjing. Nanjing? Okay, subtitles. You have been riddled with typos and grammatical errors, but please be consistent when it comes to Anglicizing names; you said Nanking earlier and now you say Nanking? At most two years have passed since then. Jeez. Okay, where was I? Kuei-mei throws his cold practicality back in his face: she doesn’t want to do this, but it is best for the family. She says that it is fine if he doesn’t go, but then asks when he will find a job; when will he pay for Cheng-fang to return to school, when will he pay off his gambling debts. She had said a couple of times that gambling would destroy their family; now she says that the family is breaking apart.

Yung-nien goes with Kuei-mei to the Wen house. After they wait there for however long, the…headservant takes them to see Yun-zi, the…lady of the house…who is totally uninterested. She simply asks if the two were told the rules and then tells the headservant to keep them for dinner. Does that mean that they are hired? Who knows? Yun-zi just leaves. So maybe they are hired. The headservant tells them that there are leftovers from the party last night. Oooo…a bitter callback.

Time to tell the kids. Kuei-mei tells Yung-nien to tell them, but he chickens out and walks away. Usually, I side with Kuei-mei, but his fault or no, she is the one who brought this to Yung-nien. Anyways, she tells the kids that they may take only two children to Japan. Cheng-chuan failed the test and can study in Japan. Little Cheng-min is sick and needs close care. Cheng-fan and the other two boys can go live with their aunt. And since Cheng-fan is the oldest, she should help to look after them. Wait, is she saying that Cheng-fan is the oldest among the remaining three kids or the oldest overall, because she was significantly shorter than Cheng-chuan even back when Kuei-mei first saw them.

That night, Kuei-mei looks over her sleeping children and starts to cry. She bites her blanket so that she doesn’t get too loud. Yung-nien snores.

The movie fades out and…oh, we are in Japan and a year or two have passed.




Just to get this out of the way. The movie that I watched is 121-minutes long. However, a bunch of websites say that it is 152-minutes long. Those all could be based on the same error. That said, I can…sort of imagine that there could be a longer version than what I had seen. The movie is very episodic and takes a bunch of time-jumps. So, it would be quite easy to delete 31 minutes of scenes and sequences and still have a coherent film.

There are a lot of supporting characters, and it can be hard to keep track of them all. So, I ended up focusing on Hou Yung-nien and Hou Cheng-fang. So much of the story is Kuei-mei trying to maintain a life with Yung-nien, but it is trying. Like Kuei-mei’s cousin, her husband is addicted to gambling. He refuses to admit it, claiming that he does for her, as if this is her responsibility and that she should be grateful. Yet, it is the source of all their problems, including his getting fired from the hotel. Meanwhile, Kuei-mei appears to have the most trouble connecting with Cheng-fang. We know nothing about children’s mother, including how long it has been since she had died, but I would imagine that Cheng-fang had been mourning her the most. She considers Kuei-mei an interloper, and Kuei-mei tries so hard to be a good stepmother. But her determination to make the family financially stable ends up leaving Cheng-fang with a sense of abandonment. And she acts out.

Overall, this is the story of…well…a woman. A woman who gets stuck with a terrible life and just suffers all through. We see her get pushed out by a resentful cousin to become the wife of a resentful husband. But I don’t think that it is just that. There are all sorts of themes running through the movie and I probably picked up on only a few of them.

One theme is Taiwan itself and the Chinese Civil War. All of the main adult characters appear to be from the Mainland, a couple even being from Nanjing. Many Mainlanders fled to Taiwan when the Communist Party took power in 1949. The Nationalist KMT party consolidated there and considered itself the legitimate government of China. So, while the people from the Mainland may not feel totally at home here, they consider themselves legitimate nationals, as opposed to foreigners. Still, there is a sense of lost identities and upended youth. Unlike the Mainland, there is plenty of influence from abroad, particularly America, but not exclusively. Meanwhile the characters have all tried to continue to live their lives in this island without Jujubes. But it has been tough, and a few had been stuck in a cycle of slow deterioration.   

The characters desire to have some sort of control over their lives, and it does not always work. Kuei-mei never wanted to be here, stuck to her cousin and then stuck to Yung-nien. She wanted to be back home with the man whom she was going to marry. But here she is. She takes a long time going to see Yung-nien, but has to go anyways. She tries to impose her will upon Yung-nien, especially when it comes to gambling. He may start to share her dream of owning a restaurant. But he always finds a way to justify going to submit his free will to an addiction to games of chance.

The characters struggle to manage their dreams, fears, and dignity as things come apart and come together. Kuei-mei seems to emit a kind of proper middle-class vibe that clashes with Hou Yung-nien’s working class scrappiness. Yung-nien resents the thought that Kuei-mei may consider herself as above him, and scolds her for letting her dignity get in the way of practical concerns. But he is also defensive about his own reputation, and is quick to anger when called out. That even happened when Kuei-mei came to his house the first time and he was in his underwear. There is constant negotiation and renegotiation of expectations. Kuei-mei wants for them to become their own bosses and never eat other people’s leftovers again. Kuei-mei worries about tearing the family apart. Yung-nien hates the Japanese. And here we are, splitting the family apart in order to work under people and eat their leftovers in Japan. They end up doing the very things that they say that they hate to provide for the family. There are lines that they will not cross or lines that they will not allow others to cross. And then when those lines are crossed, so then what?

This dignity is illusory. We see that Cheng-chuan, a child, has to face the wrath of a neighbor while Yung-nien slinks away in silent shame, unable to defend himself. This is not the only time that he just goes off-screen, symbolically abandoning Kuei-mei and the children. People talk and people know that people talk, but they keep it from each other. Kuei-mei’s cousin waits until Yung-nien is out of the room to ask her if he still gambles. The Wens argue all of the time in full view of the help, but deny it to their peers. And then there is this one scene where scandal brings a conflict out in the open for all of the neighbors to leer at from afar.  

Every decision has a consequence, and characters sometimes succumb to regret over the road not taken. Problems always surface regardless. Kuei-mei expresses regret over marrying Yung-nien, when she has just given birth to two of his children. Kuei-mei and Yung-nien leave Cheng-fang, Cheng-hsin, and Cheng-Chun (it takes so long for the youngest boy to get a name) in Taiwan when they go to Japan in order to save up money. But is the money that they save up worth the heartache and humiliation that they go through? As with the Wens, it is clear that having money does not solve problems, just the options that one has to cope with said problems and the dignity allowed to them. Characters just have to pick their battles and sometimes…they pick wrong. The characters may look back on decisions that they made or that others made, and conclude that they should have done something else. Should Kuei-mei even married Yung-nien? Should she have returned to the Mainland and tried to find her fiancé? Should she have just remained single forever? Who knows? But what was done is done; all people can do is live with what has been done.

As stated earlier, this movie is episodic and full of time jumps. So, while the characters are still themselves, their circumstances change and their attitude towards certain things change. Decisions that they make at one point, they would never make at other points in their lives. It can get a little difficult to work out whether one scene takes place a few hours after the previous one, a few days after, or a few months after unless it is stated. Sometimes, viewers can tell by looking at the youngest children, but even then, it can get tricky. There is a rather large time jump about 4/5 through the movie, so much that there needs to be a voiceover letting us know which kid is now which adult. And questionably believable old-person makeup. I would not be surprised if the supposed 31-minutes of missing footage comes from this jump. If there actually are 31 minutes cut, I never quite figured that out. In a sense, I understand why there was such a jump, as there was a bit of a character turning point here that works as a narrative climax. At the same time, there is a bit of character evolution that is skipped over. Also, there is a scene where all of the kids are together and it is too much. I am not sure if we are even meant to know who is who. I am fine with the jump, since it turns the last segment of the movie into an extended epilogue after a climax and having a segment in between that cohesively ties them together would be kind of long. Perhaps that little voiceover over photographs works as well. I don’t know.

Yeah, this is a good movie.






WTF ASIA 257: Silenced (South Korea: 2011, approx. 125 minutes)


Available in AustraliaCanadaFrancethe Netherlandsthe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.

WTF ASIA 258: Shakuntala Devi (India: 2020, approx. 127 minutes)


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