Morgan Awyong
by Morgan Awyong

You know how it feels when you see a price tag that says $3.90, but your head gladly refuses to acknowledge it’s really $4? Good luck trying that with your age.

When you’re 39, all you feel and get reminded about, is becoming 40. Facing that cusp of a milestone age - and all of its associated peer pressure - is Chen Jia-ling (Ying-Hsuan Hsieh). And gurrrllll, she’s feeling all of it, all at once.

A CATCHPLAY exclusive, The Making of an Ordinary Woman is a zany yet hard-hitting Taiwanese series that details the tribulations of an office lady, as she realises how little in life she has achieved even as she nears 40.

The rude wake-up call descends slowly upon her through the first episode, and so far, the series has met with acclaim. No doubt the show’s message of losing one’s life purpose and gaining it through self-discovery and empowerment is a theme that resonates greatly with its viewers, but add a nostalgic twist that sends us back to Tainan in the 1960s, and it further warms the cockles of our jaded hearts.

This throwback comes after Jialing attends the wedding of her first boyfriend. At the gathering of university mates, she not only endures the unbearable humble bragging and banal talk - formulaic and artificial to a fault - her ego gets further bruised when her unkempt ex is now a suited up gentleman complete with smart AND beautiful wife in tow.

This eventually sends Jialing into a tailspin, and after a drink too much, she ends up inebriated and reminisces in the cab, about how she ended up so far along with nothing in life.

As always, a family and one’s upbringing contributes to a lot to decisions - both good and bad - later in life. Jialing’s childhood in Tainan, performed with charm and sass by the talented Bella Wu, is everything we love and hate about family. Not only does a failed marriage proposal for her auntie send her granny in a tizzy, even local ghost stories revolve around vengeful spirits of unmarried women. If this doesn’t give a young girl a complex, I’m not sure what does.

Even with all the histrionics and theatrics, the Tainan family segment never loses its wacky humour. The caricatures are readily identifiable - the domineering matriarch, the obedient son, the hapless grandpa - but exaggerated sequences keep them lovable. I mean, how can anyone resist sage nuggets from grandma, such as when she berated the auntie for dropping the marriage proposal due to “incompatibility”. “The teeth often bites the tongue,” she says. “Being close means occasionally having clashes!”

In fact, the witty script keeps The Making of an Ordinary Woman from becoming overly sombre, and injects both humour and a good dose of practicality we all have heard before from a well-meaning friend or relative. Truthbombs land happily between conversations, like when her university friend claims that “a woman without a husband or job has no future”. When another friend sides Jia-ling and highlights her job as a chairman’s personal assistant, the former just candidly says that it is a role with no further career progression. Dang.

The same friend also judges the drunken Jia-ling after she boards her cab. “A 20-year-old woman when drunk is cute (ke ai),” she starts. “But a 40-year-old woman when drunk is pathetic (ke lian).”

Harsh as it is, all of it is true. Witnessing Jia-ling’s world crumbling around her can give anyone anxiety, while sympathising with her situation. Her boss is a two-timing douche, and his wife obsessively smothers him through the obedient Jia-ling. Jia-ling has been dating yes, but for so long (four years) so that the guy is now more flat mate than boyfriend. Friendzoning woes.

As the 10-episode series slowly turns our lady from hapless to heroine, we stay riveted also due to the performances of the stellar cast. James Wen is Jiang Xian-rong, and perfects the clueless and sparkless boyfriend who needs no commitment. Others like Li-Yin Yang rules the screen as the tyrannical grandmother, while the long-suffering auntie is fulfilled by the graceful performance of Peggy Tseng.

While certain scenes go full-throttle slapstick and may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the majority of the comedy lands in the lighthearted observations and situational kind. I mean, with a truckload of awards from the ensemble, including two Golden Horse winners and six Golden Bell winners, you can be assured of an engaging performance throughout.

The same kind of keen detail goes also to the older sets of Tainan during the throwback. Even if the uniform is a little too crisp and the family’s Medicine Hall a little too neat, points still go to the all-too-familiar moments when props like a flattened uneaten bread tossed out from a school bag gains instant recognition from people of that generation.

The Making of an Ordinary Woman is anything but ordinary. This entertaining series couples realism and hard truths with a dose of idiosyncratic fun. It’s outrageous yet endearing, and if you should shed tears for our heroine, it’ll be one mixed with bitter sympathy and rib-tickling mirth.

The Making of an Ordinary Woman