Oct/Nov 2012 Miscellaneous

Review and Analysis of the Film Eat Drink Man Woman

by Winnie Khaw

Taiwanese-born American filmmaker Ang Lee, best known to Western audiences for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) and Brokeback Mountain (2005), directs/writes Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), a delightfully charming romantic comedy whose plot threads all neatly tie together. Aging master chef Chu (Lung Sihung) has a family tradition on Sundays: to eat dinner with his three daughters, the old maid and schoolteacher Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei-Yang), the beautiful and successful businesswoman Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu), and college student Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) who works at a fast food joint. In Eat Drink Lee expertly paints a portrait of the concerns of familial relationships and suppressed personal feelings in the foreground with succulent feasts as a backdrop. The dinner table, initially secretly derided as a tortuous experience, becomes an important forum for life-changing announcements as father and daughters independently seek the recipe for love in their personal lives.

Genuinely surprising ironies abound in the uniquely titled Eat Drink Man Woman. The daughters defy conventional expectations with illicit romances, but Chu has a secret romantic attachment of his own which makes for the enjoyable, humorous climax to the film. Although Jia-Chen is first to declare her independence, in the end she is the one who remains behind in the house after everyone has moved away. The death of Old Wen (Jui Wang), Chu's best friend, convinces Chu to act on his inclinations to retire and move on with his life before it's too late. Mrs. Liang expects Chu to ask her to marry him, presiding over the dinner table as though she were already mistress of the house; instead, he turns to her daughter Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) and declares his romantic intentions to the appalled family. Though Chu continues to prepare mouth-watering meals, over the years his sense of taste has failed and that loss succinctly shows how, despite his absolute command of the culinary arts, theory fails when compared to savoring food on the tongue.

According to the Chinese classic Book of Rites, man's primary desires are to "eat, drink, and have sex"—hence the intriguing title explained by an inebriated Wen and Chu. Loving relationships give meaning to life and ought to be considered one of the necessities of existence. The technique and artistry of gourmet Chinese cuisine is put on delicious display, often expressing the love that the characters cannot say to each other or accentuating its presence. Loss can lead to further fulfilment, as demonstrated when it seems Chu has lost all: his daughters to marriage or business, his taste buds, his old friend Wen, and his wife sixteen years ago, not to mention that he is obviously aging. Yet by the end, he presents the family with a clean bill of health from the doctor, regains his sense of taste, and has gained a larger, more tightly knit family than ever before, including a wife and child.

Food acts as a recurring symbol and hovers in the background for poignant family moments. Jia-Chen, the rising airline executive, has a love for cooking which was diverted into business because Chu wanted her to attend college. From a stifled argument between them, clearly the issue is still a sensitive one, and gives partial reasoning to her resentment against her father. Jia-Ning's job at Wendy's indicates the infusion of Western culture into Taiwan; the value system, while still harkening to the traditional (everyone considers Jia-Jen a spinster), has a much more liberal, Western-influenced control over the characters, as shown by Jia-Ning's out-of-wedlock baby with her boyfriend. The elaborate Sunday dinners become the only sure-to-survive ritual of the increasing family. Sharing food in a group setting is an integral custom in Chinese society and in Eat Drink becomes a literal method of communication, a social and familial experience to be treasured.

The generational conflict that so often prevails in family dramas such as the Asian-American Joy Luck Club (1993) has a presence in Eat Drink as well, though not as strongly as in the former film. The friction between characters does not disallow the audience from finding everyone, if not uniformly likeable, then at least identifiable. Every family has a loquacious Mrs. Liang somewhere, irritating but unfortunately necessary to be endured for the sake of a loved one. Chu, so magically effective in the kitchen but somewhat terse in conversation, is a personable and respected father figure who in trying to take care of everyone else temporarily puts his own desires on hold. Of the daughters, all have not less than fairly interesting stories, from the romantic Jia-Ning to the repressed Jia-Jen and troubled Jia-Chen. Endearing if a bit too lightly resolved, Eat Drink begins with a small group which progressively grows into an ensemble cast, yet the characters are for the most part so well-drawn and three-dimensional that the audience will not be at loss to know who is who or who is in a relationship with who. The dizzying camerawork of scrumptious dishes adds a sensual visual element to the rest of the film, but at times can overpower the actual storyline and character interactions.

As a small, perceptive film about a dysfunctional family growing in numbers and appreciation of each other, Eat Drink is a heart-warming work of cinema, both unpredictable and effective as it moves leisurely but surely at a whimsical, engaging pace. Stereotypical functions are transcended into more flavorsome, self-chosen and individual roles. Emotional and psychological action takes the place of physical explosions; every scene possesses a strong sparkle and energy, an attribute that might be considered odd considering that most of the frames consist of people sitting around a table talking over food. The sense of taste is one less mentioned than sight or hearing, but it certainly adds to a zestful life.

The versatile Ang Lee has directed a highly diverse body of cinematic work which runs a gamut of genres and often involve adaptations: from Jane Austen's classic novel Sense and Sensibility in 1995, to the Marvel superhero comic Hulk in 2003 to Annie Proulx's American Western short story "Brokeback Mountain." An internationally acclaimed filmmaker, he won an Oscar as Best Director for Brokeback Mountain and saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (based on the fourth book in Wang Dulu's wuxia pentalogy) receive the award for Best Foreign Language Film.

It seems clear even to the casual viewer of Lee's works that he proceeds through certain phases, feeling out artistic possibilities with one to three films before edging a further distance. Early in his career, in what can be termed his Taiwanese trilogy, (Pushing Hands 1992, The Wedding Banquet 1993, Eat Drink Man Woman 1994) Lee explores and expands upon similar themes and concepts throughout—generational clashes between traditional Confucian ideals regarding close-knit, hierarchical familial connection, and a Western-influenced modern outlook with the individual as the primary focus. The realistically portrayed tragic love story of Brokeback Mountain marks a departure from the general sense of well-being presented in the aforementioned Taiwanese trilogy, the brooding comic book action of Hulk, or the fantasy romance/martial arts of Crouching Tiger. The 2007 Lust, Caution, adapted from the novella by Eileen Chang, also garnered critical acclaim despite explicit sexual content and controversial politics.

Lee has taken part in a few other films such as The Ice Storm 1997, Ride with the Devil 1999, and Taking Woodstock 2009—critics panned the last as a "clichéd" and "lame" disaster, but overall Lee's ventures in writing and directing have received enthusiastically positive reviews. His most recent film is an adaptation of the novel Life of Pi, which will premiere in November 2012.


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