Friday, March 5, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Eat Drink Man Woman"

The message of "Eat Drink Man Woman" is pretty straightforward: Love and romance are as integral to one's basic subsistence as food and water.

The third film directed by Ang Lee was a huge international hit in 1994, preceded the year before by "The Wedding Banquet," and launched his filmmaking career in America the year after with "Sense and Sensibility." Lee, who also co-wrote the script, already showed a mature, humanistic approach to storytelling.

It's the tale of a Taiwanese father and three adult daughters, all living under the same roof but emotionally scattered. All have varying degrees of love trouble, even the ones who have sworn off romance.

Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) is a master gourmet chef who's very protective of his art. In addition to his professional duties at the top local restaurant, he spends hours in his large home kitchen cooking. Every Sunday he prepares a veritable feast for the family, with a dozen courses or more.

The loving food shots are enough to set one's stomach to a high rumble, even though the food itself is mostly unfamiliar since it's authentic Taiwanese cooking. There's one shot of Chu pulling some beef spare ribs out of a simmering pot that sent me scurrying to the kitchen.

Chu doesn't allow any of his three daughters to cook in his kitchen -- even though middle daughter Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu) showed a talent for it as a girl. He's further confounded by his own dying taste buds. Not only can he not enjoy his own creations, but he occasionally screws them up because he can't self-correct. He's at once prideful and dismissive of his life's calling.

"People today don't appreciate the exquisite art of cooking," Chu grouses to the restaurant manager. "After 40 years of Chinese food in Taiwan, the art is lost. Food from everywhere merges like rivers running into the sea. Everything tastes the same."

Chu is most estranged from Jia-Chen, even though he secretly harbors the greatest pride for her. She has become a top executive at a Chinese airline company. She is desperate to move out from under her father's strict control, having put down her life savings on a new luxury apartment project. She's also tempted by an opportunity to live abroad, and by a married co-worker.

If Jia-Chen's life is bursting with opportunities, oldest daughter Jian-Jen (Keui-Mei Yang) seems stuck. A plain old maid of a school teacher, she seems to have never recovered from a broken romance during college. Nearing 30 -- practically ancient for an unmarried woman in traditional Taiwan -- Jia-Chen is committed to her father and her Christian faith. A new gym teacher at her school offers a last shot at freedom, especially when mysterious love letters begin arriving on her desk.

Youngest daughter Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) is a 20-year-old student working at a Wendy's fast-food restaurant. One of her co-workers delights in torturing her sad mope of a boyfriend before she finally dumps him. Jia-Ning tries to console the sad boy, and finds herself drawn to him.

Plot-wise, there really isn't much going on. Chu and his daughters have various low-key confrontations that halt before any genuine exchange of emotional catharsis is achieved. Chu's brother Old Wen warns that he is headed for an explosion. This seems confirmed when Jia-Chen spots Chu coming out of a cardiologist's office.

There's also a neighbor with a young daughter and an old harpy of a mother. The matron, who constantly derides the institution of marriage, nevertheless appears to have marital aims on Mr. Chu. For his part, he enjoys secretly preparing gourmet lunches for the granddaughter, which brings her a great deal of popularity at school.

I can't stress enough what a culinary delight watching this movie is. Like "Julie & Julia," the food is simply gorgeous to look upon, let alone stimulating your centers of craving. Although I must observe that everyone in the movie seems suspiciously slender to be enjoying this fare on a regular basis.

"Eat Drink Man Woman" is simply delicious filmmaking. And it was but the appetizer for the great career of Ang Lee.

3.5 stars

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