Ang Lee’s movies always find a way to surprise me. Maybe that’s why I like them so much — I go in not expecting much, but come out having learned a lot about life. Ang Lee’s oddly titled 1994 Taiwanese film Eat Drink Man Woman is one of those movies that draws you in and surprises you with its effectiveness. Lee and writing partner James Schamus have done numerous movies together, always as director/writer, and have even tackled the genre picture Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and finding a way to inject their own personal and grounded themes into a movie filled with swordplay and fantastical feats. Eat Drink Man Woman is the kind of movie the writing/directing duo is most known for: the small, personal films about love, life, and family, and all the dysfunction, heartache, and triumph in-between.
Eat Drink Man Woman stars the personable Sihung Lung as Chu, a master chef who is slowly losing his sense of taste, a disastrous loss for someone who has defined his life (as well as his livelihood) on the basis of his taste buds. Chu, whose wife passed away 16 years ago, cares for his 3 daughters by himself, but it’s unclear if they’re his charge or if he’s theirs. Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest one, is trying to steal a friend’s boyfriend away; Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) the middle and Cosmo girl, is too busy for her family and, as it turns out, herself; and the oldest, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), has devoted so much of her life to caring for her father at the expense of her own life that it’s left her single. The family suffers a crisis of personal identity and convictions when outside love interferes in their separate lives. Can the family survive — or will it all fall apart like a house of cards?
I must confess to being personally in love with Eat Drink Man Woman because the movie appeals to me on so many levels, with the most superficial stemming from the fact that Sihung Lung’s Chu reminds me of my own father, minus the culinary excellence. Even the sisters, in their various shades and personalities remind me of my own sisters. Now, if the movie had a son, then Eat Drink Man Woman could very well be my own life. Even if you can’t connect with Eat Drink Man Woman on a personal level, then its themes of family, selfishness, obligations, and eventual understanding is bound to strike a cord.
The acting is outstanding across the board. Sihung Lung is charming as Chu, a man who has taken it upon himself to care for his daughters. He knows they need to leave the house, and he knows he’s a stubborn man for continuing like this, but for some reason he carries on anyway. What no one knows is that Chu harbors a secret that can tear the family apart — a family that’s tearing at the seams anyway. As the older sisters, Ching-Lien Wu and Kuei-Mei Yang play their roles with the perfect balance of selfishness and self-sacrifice. Their characters are complex and it’s impossible to read them and predict their actions from scene to scene. As the youngest sibling, Yu-Wen Wang is still too young and ends up being the weakest thespian of the group, but that’s okay because her story is the least interesting, and gets the least screentime.
The supporting cast also makes Eat Drink Man Woman a delightful film to experience. The men are all very good as they add to the personal dilemmas of the sisters and their relationship with their father. Ah Lei Gua as Mrs. Liang, the flirtatious and mouthy widow who insinuates herself into the Chu’s household, is a breath of fresh air and provides the movie’s few laughs. Sylvia Chang plays Jin-Rong, Mrs. Liang’s daughter, whose own daughter has become a substitute daughter for Chu.
Like all Ang Lee films, Eat Drink Man Woman might be perceived as slow paced, but never boring. The movie moves well, even for a drama heavy on family dysfunction, mostly because Lee knows the difference between movement and stillness and when to apply what technique in what situation. Many Asian filmmakers, particularly the Japanese and South Koreans, could learn a lot from Lee’s camera movements, and realize that sometimes lingering stationary shots for the sake of lingering stationary shots can get a little tiresome when used too often and without purpose.
Eat Drink Man Woman is a superb film. It’s perceptive and ponderously unpredictable. While there is no “action” going on onscreen (re: nothing blows up), there is plenty of emotional action going on within the characters and their quiet interactions. Every scene crackles with energy, even when no one is moving or saying a word. Like all Lee films, the actors are superbly directed, and every frame snaps with energy. All of which are hard to accomplish when you’re making a film about culinary arts and people sitting around eating dinner. Hard to do, yes, but not impossible, as Ang Lee shows.
And if you were wondering what the main character’s sense of taste has to do with anything, just think about the lack of luster that remains in a man’s life as his remaining years dwindle, and his reasons for living slowly but surely abandons him. You’ll understand.
Ang Lee (director) / Ang Lee, James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang (screenplay)
CAST: Sihung Lung …. Chu
Yu-Wen Wang …. Jia-Ning
Chien-lien Wu …. Jia-Chien
Kuei-Mei Yang …. Jia-Jen
Sylvia Chang …. Jin-Rong