“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994)
by A.J. Hakari
The food we consume and how we consume it speak volumes about where we are as people. When cooking, do you stick to the traditional recipe as it’s written, or are you prone to taking new chances? Do you make sure to savor every bite of a meal, or do you usually end up horking it down on the go? Food says a lot about the sort of lives we lead, a relationship so intimate that the right whiff of the right dish can immediately conjure any number of memories. 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman understands this power and wields it with expertise, telling the story of a family build upon a foundation of the culinary arts. It was director Ang Lee’s third feature, and although his edges are considerably more rough, comparisons to the great Yasujiro Ozu in the way he spins the tale of clashing generations aren’t entirely unheralded. Eat Drink Man Woman contains a bounty of delectable visuals, yes, but that it hits such profound notes without feeling false or overtly schmaltzy makes watching this even more satisfying.
As the years go by, few things remain as consistent as we’d like them to be. Times change, traditions are forgotten, and events that fueled our fondest memories become just that: memories. But for Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), one of the greatest chefs Taiwan ever saw, Sunday dinner with his daughters is the one constant he has left in an ever-changing world. A widower who raised his girls on his own for the longest time, Chu spends each and every weekend preparing a glorious feast for his family to enjoy…although with his kids now grown-up, the wave of progress has begun to carry them away one by one. Eldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) has almost entirely cut herself off emotionally following a past romance that went sour, devoting herself to teaching and Christianity. Youngest child Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) works at a fast food joint and eventually becomes involved in a relationship with a co-worker’s ex-boyfriend. Then in the middle, there’s Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), an airline executive on the ride who for years has hidden her cooking prowess from her father, who’d rather she pursue a career outside of the kitchen. As their story progresses, those Sunday dinners are more scarcely attended, forcing Old Chu to decide whether he wants to fear the future of his clan or embrace the avalanche of even more changes yet to come.
Made just prior to Lee’s English-language debut with Sense and Sensibility, Eat Drink Man Woman also represents one of the last stylistically down-to-earth movies he supervised. Even dramas such as The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain had a certain dreaminess to them, as opposed to this film’s noisy and crowded reality. Eat Drink Man Woman is an optimistic picture with a mild streak of whimsy running throughout it, but it has enough of a level head to be aware that with any change will come resistance, a period of hard times during which the strengths and weaknesses of both the old and the new must be weighed. Its comedy doesn’t come across as forced, and its dramatic developments don’t feel contrived (for the most part), resulting in a story that earns the knowing chuckles and the tears it’s aiming for. That’s not to say that every character or relationship is as effective or even as memorable as one another — at times, it’s a little hard to distinguish between who’s sexual partners with who and why certain people are lying about their romantic goings-on — but at the very least, everyone here feels genuine, as if they have lives that exist outside of what the script covers. While a little background info wouldn’t have hurt in particular cases, Lee has engineered a story where you mostly don’t need to be told a whole lot to understand where someone is coming from. We hear just a few short words regarding Old Chu’s reputation in the kitchen and Jia-Chien’s untapped dreams about following in those footsteps, but it’s all you need, a more effective way of communicating their feelings than lengthy monologues could ever produce.
This brings us to one of Eat Drink Man Woman‘s most powerful assets: food. Firstly, it’s a means through which Lee allows the audience to better connect with the drama, asking us to look back and see just how many of our own culinary traditions we’ve abandoned throughout our lives. But while the ground he treads seems awfully somber, Lee eases the acceptance of such changes by having his characters find a sense of balance by themselves. For instance, while Old Chu is upset over his children fleeing the nest, one amusing subplot has him compensating for it by cooking school lunch for the daughter of a family friend…only to end up taking orders for her entire class. Plus, on a purely superficial note, all of the prepared dishes simply make the picture incredible to look at and easy to salivate over. The opening credits sequence alone (which apparently took an entire week to shoot) is a feast for the eyes, as are all the other meals we see, which makes the fact that Chu finds himself without as many people to prepare them for all the more heartbreaking. Speaking of which, Chu is played wonderfully by Lung, who helps the character’s sadness and stubbornness shine through in a very effective performance. The actresses playing his daughters all have varying amounts of screen time (with Jia-Chien emerging with the meatier subplot), but each has their well-deserved moment in the sun. Wang is solid as the baby of the family who gets a great deal of responsibility suddenly thrust upon her at one point, you feel for Yang as her character tries breaking out of a seclusion of her own design, and Wu is simply great as a woman who comes to realize she doesn’t need the approval of others to follow her dreams.
Despite its strong family element, Eat Drink Man Woman seems to have been sold as a spicy sexcapade when it opened up stateside. Sexual awakenings are present within the narrative, but they’re just a small fraction of the multitude of topics Lee and his creative team canvas with an understanding eye over the course of two hours and change. Although I’m not sure how many moviegoers were left disappointed by Eat Drink Man Woman not having wall-to-wall sack-hopping, hopefully enough had the good sense to stick by and appreciate its honest but gentle message about how funny, tragic, and unpredictable as hell life can be.
(Eat Drink Man Woman is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.)