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"Eat, drink, man, woman. Basic human desires. You can't avoid them." Old Chu
Ang Lee opens Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) on brief shots of Taipei, a bustling modern city of skyscrapers and busy streets crammed with cars, mopeds and pedestrians, before he sweeps us out of the city and into the rural home of Old Chu, a semi-retired master chef in one of Taipei's most respected restaurants. Here there is no rush, only the loving attention lavished on an elaborate Sunday meal for his three daughters. Chu, an aging widower, is most at home in the kitchen, preparing and cooking and readying for presentation. He's less sure of himself presiding over the social ritual of the family dinner, which plays out with strained politeness. The muted tension reflects no animosity, merely a disconnection as the grown women follow their paths and keep their personal feelings and struggles hidden from one another.
Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest daughter, is a student who works part time as a fast food clerk (it's not a statement of rebellion, merely a reflection of the changing urban culture) and falls for her best friend's neglected and frustrated boyfriend. The eldest, high school math teacher Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), took over the maternal responsibilities since the death of their mother, at the cost of her romantic life. She still mourns a lost love from years before and her frustration and resentment simmers under her brittle faade of authority both at home and at school. Middle sister Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) is a rising executive at a national airline company engaged in a casual affair with a younger man and determined to finally leave the rural family home. At the dinner that opens the film, she announces that she has bought an apartment in the city and will be moving out of the family home. It's not the last major event that will be announced at dinner. All four family members will face romantic trials that will change their lives dramatically and, true to form, they will hide their emotional lives until the ritualistic announcement at their weekly dinner.
Taiwan-born director Ang Lee trained first as an actor and then as a director in the United States. His first two features, Pushing Hands (1992) and The Wedding Banquet (1993), are wrapped up in the same collision of cultures that Lee experienced living in the U.S., reconciling the Chinese expectations of family responsibility and tradition with the far more open culture of American life. Both were shot in the U.S. with producer James Schamus (who became Lee's longtime writing and producing partner) and financed with Taiwanese backing. Both were enormously successful in Taiwan, and the latter became an independent hit in American that established his international reputation.
Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee's third feature, was his first to be shot and set in his homeland. Determined to establish himself as a Chinese filmmaker, Lee returned to the city of Taipei, where he grew up, and he drew from his own experiences. As a struggling filmmaker just out of college, Lee kept the family home and cooked the meals while his wife worked full time and he wrote scripts and pitched projects, trying to get his first feature produced. The idea of food as something to be shared is very Chinese, according to Lee. It became a natural focus for his story: food as a way of communication, as a social and familial experience. "The food and the banquet in the movie has really become a ritual," explained Lee in an interview. In this film, it often replaces communication.
Food is also central to Chu's identity. Unbeknownst to all except his closest friend and fellow chef Wen (affectionately known as Uncle Wen by Chu's daughters), he is losing his sense of taste. He has a lifetime of recipes and a passion for cooking, but like a painter going blind or a musician losing his hearing, he's an artist losing command of the sense that defines him. It's an obvious metaphor for aging and losing control, but in the hands of Lee it's more than just a symbol. Called from his family by Wen to save a culinary disaster at the restaurant, Chu arrives intent and confident and completely in his element, like a surgeon coming in to perform an emergency operation. As he steps in to the restaurant and snakes through the kitchen counters with laser-like focus, he's dressed in the chef's answer to surgical scrubs by one man and handed his glasses by another as all gather round to hear his assessment of the crisis and await his solution and instructions. This is the one area of life in which he still has control, yet he must rely on Wen to gauge his success when he whips up a last-minute entre to replace a shark fin fiasco. All the cooking theory in the world is just that when faced with the results of real food on the human tongue.
The stories and emotional crises are familiar, the stuff of melodrama and romantic comedies. It's the perspective Lee gives this portrait of repressed desires and hidden lives played out in the rituals of meals and family gatherings that makes the film so engaging and appealing. According to producer and co-writer James Schamus, "Eat Drink Man Woman takes place really as the third of our "Father Knows Best" trilogy. We're really seeing the Confucian fatherly role model slowly turn into something else, something more modern." The American Schamus confesses that he found it difficult when he attempted to write from a Chinese perspective. "The more research I did, the worse the script got," he explains, so he transformed the characters (at least in his own mind) into a Jewish family and wrote from his own cultural experience. When Ang Lee read it, he responded: "It looks very Chinese." Yet, while social and cultural details are unique, the emotional lives and hard decisions are universally human.
The study of social manners and suppressed feelings became Lee's specialty. His next film was an adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1995) starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. The setting is half a world and two centuries removed from Eat Drink Man Woman but the (if you'll pardon the expression) sensibility is almost the same. Similarly, films as otherwise different as The Ice Storm (1997), Hulk (2003) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) ultimately concerned themselves with longing, emotional repression and a fear of unleashing the tumult of feelings kept under control.
Eat Drink Man Woman was a 1995 Oscar® nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and was remade as Tortilla Soup in 2001, which shifts the story, almost completely intact, to a Mexican-American family.
Producers: Kong Hsu, Li-Kong Hsu
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Ang Lee, James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang
Cinematography: Jong Lin
Film Editing: Tim Squyres
Cast: Sihung Lung (Chu), Yu-Wen Wang (Jia-Ning), Chien-lien Wu (Jia-Chien), Kuei-Mei Yang (Jia-Jen), Sylvia Chang (Jin-Rong), Winston Chao (Li Kai), Chao-jung Chen (Guo Lun), Lester Chit-Man Chan (Raymond), Yu Chen (Rachel), Ah Lei Gua (Madame Liang).
by Sean Axmaker