Eat Drink Man Woman
English Title: Eat Drink Man Woman
Country of Origin: Taiwan
Studio: Ang Lee Productions, Central Motion Pictures Corporation, Good Machine, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (US)
Director: Ang Lee
Cinematographer: Lin Jong
Art Director: Lee Fu-Hsiung
Editor: Tim Squyres
Runtime: 124 minutes
From the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle of Taipei’s streets, the camera turns to the retired and widowed chef Master Chu’s kitchen. Chu violently controls his culinary world: killing fish and poultry, skilful slicing of food, stewing, steaming and frying. He prepares the weekly culinary and visual feast for his three daughters. The eldest Jia-Jen devotes her life to the church. Second daughter Jia-Chien is a deputy director of an airline; her professional ability is nevertheless contrasted with her emotional and personal indecision and turmoil. Jia-Ning works in a fast-food restaurant, an insult to her father’s profession.
As Chu’s presence in his adult daughters’ lives fades, his indulgence is shifted to Shan Shan, the young daughter of a divorcing friend Jin Rong, for whom he cooks and delivers school lunches of many courses. Jia-Jen and Jia-Ning’s surprise marriage and pregnancy force Chu out of his insulated existence. He chooses to make his own surprising announcement of his proposal to Jin Rong during Sunday lunch. Chien loses her investment in an apartment and takes over the responsibility for the family home. So it is now up to Chien to cook the Sunday feast for her father.
The last film in Ang Lee’s (Chinese) ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy (the other two films being Pushing Hands , and The Wedding Banquet ) begins with the retired chef’s kitchen of which he is in total control. Chu is still called upon to troubleshoot in the professional kitchen of the Grand Palace Restaurant, another stainless and masculine cocoon for the old master. Here lies the two central themes of the film as the title suggests, gender relations and food-health-family life, which are played out through the symbolic Sunday banquet. Chien, the most elaborated female protagonist, describes how the family ‘communicate by eating.’ She tries to buy an apartment with all her savings and, after the sale falls through, considers working abroad in order to escape the ‘Sunday dinner torture ritual’ and therefore her father’s domination within the family. Like her father, Chien expresses affection through cooking, which she does twice in the film for an ex-lover and Master Chu. The fetishistic displacement of affect onto food dominates the relationships between the individuals, and consumption mediates their interpersonal interactions.
Jia-Jen, the stereotypical old spinster, initially takes up the role of the missing maternal figure. She even makes up the story of being jilted in order to avoid intimacy with her family or potential suitors. She cracks up after years of emotional repression and finally finds romantic love. The youngest Jia-Ning works in a fast-food joint as a modern contrast to her traditional father. The female-male, daughter-father conflicts are explained as part of the natural hierarchy of patriarchy, and food is symbolically central in creating and maintaining the family; Chu’s friend Old Wen claims, ‘Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. Food and sex. Basic human desires. Can’t avoid them.’
However, Chu’s functions as the fatherly figure presiding over the family hearth are made redundant when he loses his tastebuds and two daughters to marriages. Chu decides to strike out himself to form a new family with the younger divorcee Jin Rong. The family melodrama ends with several happy occasions within the confines of patriarchal linearity. Ning gives birth to a daughter; Jen’s new husband gets baptized under her approving eyes (baptizing is also a rebirth), and Jin Rong is heavily pregnant. The wayward Chien has taken responsibility for the family kitchen, newly vacated by Master Chu, and she now cooks the Sunday lunch. While tasting Chien’s soup, Chu discovers that his sense of taste has returned, the most symbolic of the rebirths within the narrative. This father/daughter reconciliation therefore resolves the gender and familial conflicts. Master Chu now sits while Chien stands, serving him more soup; the two address each other, emphasizing the resolution.
Ang Lee returns to Taipei for this ultimate film in the trilogy that signals a turning point in his oeuvre. Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet were made from the point of view of a diasporic Taiwanese director based in the United States. After Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee became a Chinese American director and did not return to Chinese language film-making until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. So Eat Drink Man Woman would appear to have concluded Lee’s own exploration of his diasporic status, and fascination for the father/child relationship in Chinese culture.
Author of this review: Leung Wing-Fai