Few filmmakers have shown the range Ang Lee has over the span of the last thirty years. Think about it, the same man who is responsible for Hulk gave us Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among many others. In fact, the Taiwanese director rose to prominence for his keen eye on empathic, intimate stories of family life – a theme that would then go on to be developed in all of his projects, with varying degrees of success.
As the holiday season approaches, I decided to look back on what is my favorite film of his, Lee’s effort from 1994, Eat Drink Man Woman, a fitting display of family melodrama as the year winds to an end.
Ang Lee’s fascination with family dynamics is at its most evident in Eat Drink Man Woman, a delicate story about a widower and his three unmarried daughters who must make sense of the shifting social landscape of modern day Taiwan. On the surface it is about a family learning to let go, and each member finding their own way, but upon revisiting this film, I noticed how broad and packed with ideas it really is. Lee tells a story made of glances, gestures, silences and miscommunication. It is a story about instinct, faith and taking a leap into the unknown. It is also a movie about food, and the power of a meal shared among loved ones.
Food is at the center of Eat Drink Man Woman. The aging Chu, a former restaurant chef who is pondering the idea of retirement, has gotten himself to a point where he is unable to communicate with his daughters other than by preparing for them huge, complicated feasts of meat, fish, cheese and vegetables. Steamed, fried, boiled, smoked… to Chu the main concern is to prepare as much food as possible to compensate for the lack of words, the lack of palpable affection on his part. Chu (played by the wonderful Ang Lee regular Sihung Lung) is a man hardened by life, who has fallen behind Taipei’s relentless technological progress. By this point, his daughters are as alien to him as the people roaming the streets of his beloved city. For Chu, the food he places on the dinner table is as much of a confession of love as it is a plea for help by a father who is unable to express himself any other way.
Chu’s daughters tap into different aspects of their father’s past and identity. There is the eldest, Jia-Jen, who considers herself closest to Chu, and more understanding of his old-fashioned way of seeing things. At the same time, Jia-Jen is a practicing Catholic, thus essentially turning her back on the family’s Buddhist majority. Second in line is Jia-Chen, the middle child and the one with the most complicated relationship with Chu. In fact, her father is perhaps most protective of her, as she is considered the most beautiful of the three daughters. Jia-Chen’s ambitions and drive put her at risk in this dog-eat-dog world. She’s a corporate business-woman, a sales expert forced into a reality of charts and figures that holds no meaning to her. Finally, there is Jia-Ning, the youngest of the three and yet, the wisest of them all. Driven by pure instinct and with the features of a little girl, Jia-Ning is the observer, the one who catches the slightest change in someone’s look but doesn’t reveal herself to others. In a way, she is the one with the most to lose.
What Ang Lee often does – and especially in Eat Drink Man Woman – is establish a certain hierarchy, a way of seeing and doing things, and then, as the movie progresses, flip it on its head and rock the world of his characters. Lee’s cinema is one of revelations. In Eat Drink Man Woman these revelations concern all three daughters. “I don’t know any of them and I don’t want to know,” Chu says to his brother. “Let them grow up and leave.” The father’s desire to push his daughters away is one that stems from bitterness and regret. Chu thinks he’s done for; his taste buds are gone, he can’t tell if the pork is over-smoked or if the dumplings are under-cooked, and above all, he thinks he’s figured it all out, life and the mysteries behind it. But, the hectic, diverse lifestyles of his three daughters are bound to shake up Chu’s preconceived notions.
Ang Lee knows, perhaps better than any other living filmmaker, how real families operate, and the way the things we say and the ones we don’t can create a domino effect among relatives. In Eat Drink Man Woman, each daughter has her own secret and, whether it’s a forbidden love, a bad investment or a long-standing lie, they all contribute to the communal life they lead together. After all, family life depends on the degree of expression we share at the dinner table. “We communicate by eating,” admits Jia-Chen. Is that a tragedy or a comedy? Perhaps, it’s both. It’s a hilarious, true to life take on the idiosyncratic features of most families.
The lives of our protagonists are bound to go in different directions. In a way, we watch as Chu’s family falls apart, and yet – Ang Lee turns it into a celebration of self-discovery. It is a portrayal of a group of people who finally come to terms with who they really are and who they want to be. Some, like the youngest daughter, Jia-Ning, want to be loved, others, like the older sisters, want to be left in peace. The film shows – almost like a parable – how by finding our own way, we can grow closer to the people we were convinced we’d figured out long ago. In Ang Lee’s cinema – as is the case for Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm – honesty, with ourselves and others, is our only salvation, our only shot at reducing the regrets we may cultivate along the way. All three daughters come to this realization. Chu does too. They dare step out of the boundaries that had surrounded them for years, limited their worldview and prevented them from – that’s right – being honest with themselves. They dare to believe in love, friendship and passion. Just like in a Christmas movie, by the end our protagonists come together, and food is no longer a substitute for feeling. Food is food, and feelings are feelings.
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