Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Prior to working in a restaurant, I was always puzzled by the level of aggression that could spring forth from something as simple as an incorrect order or a slightly over-done egg. With over ten years under my belt working in the food industry, I’ve come to a very simple conclusion. Food is personal. It's something you are literally putting in your body. It’s both a physical and even spiritual experience. Dining out isn’t something every person or family can do willy-nilly, so if everything isn’t perfect, emotions can range from mild disappointment to Hulk-like rage. There’s a reason cooking shows are popular, but upon closer inspection, there's clearly a method to the madness. Scour the internet for behind-the-scenes stories, and you’ll find that TV producers aren’t simply looking for good chefs. They want a story. Personal drama provides a metaphorical extension of the person’s desire to cook. The act of passing on recipes carries with it a level of nostalgia and brings up deep memories. Breaking bread at gatherings with family and friends help us gain memories that can be both joyous and painful many years down the road. In Ang Lee’s ensemble drama Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), the harmonious balance between humanity and food is expressed through love, jealousy, hardships, and dreams deferred.
Two years after the critical and commercial success of EDMW, another food-centric indie was released into the wild. Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996) centers around a beleaguered pair of brothers struggling to keep their authentic Italian restaurant afloat. Still beloved to this day, I was saddened to find the film lacking upon revisiting it again. The film’s first half fell flat for me, yet it was completely redeemed by the now-famous dinner scene, where Tony Shalhoub’s master chef serves up dish after dish of delectable cuisine. The Timpano was a particularly impressive creation. Just as the delicious fragrance of a good meal can coax and entice a diner to venture into a restaurant, so does Lee’s simple, yet elegant approach to the lives of a widowed chef and his three distinctly different daughters.
I’m not a big fish-eater (I tend to stick with salmon, trout, or tuna when it comes to sushi), but as in Big Night, the opening of EDMW makes you desperate to reach through the screen with a fork. Chu (Sihung Lung, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is in expert mode, as the film shows the precise manner in which he prepares a variety of dishes for a weekly Sunday dinner with his daughters. The satisfaction of watching him wrap crab meat in elegant dumplings and oil suddenly springing to life when a piece of meat is dropped into the pan is delightful. As a legendary Chinese chef with a famous restaurant, this is all par for the course, but as the years have worn on, he’s discovered that although his hands remain dexterous, his sense of taste is nearly gone and his memory is fading.
Jia-Chien (Chien Lien-Wu, Eighteen Springs) remarks to her lover, an ex-boyfriend who is now a “friend with benefits,” that she has to go through the “Sunday dinner torture ritual.” She’s a successful executive for an airline company and is arguably the most stable and successful of the trio. One of the film’s many strengths is Jia-Chien's ability to balance both her work life and a healthy sexual appetite that’s satisfied by her dalliances with her ex while remaining a rising star at her company. Although she’s spent her life savings on a down payment for a soon-to-be-built upscale apartment, her boss informs her that a coveted position in Amsterdam has her name on it. Years earlier, she was “exiled” from her father’s kitchen, effectively ending any possibility of becoming a great chef herself, even though she obviously possesses great talent in the culinary arts. She meets a handsome visiting executive, Li Kai (Winston Chao, The Wedding Banquet, The Meg), who awakens her deep desires and drudges up memories of regret.
Her older sister Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang, The Moon also Rises) has a much more difficult and fractured relationship history. Nine years ago, she broke up with a boyfriend at school and is now a devout Christian and chemistry teacher. It’s suspected her piety is a wall which she uses to shield herself against emotional connection with both her family and other men. Yang’s storyline is arguably the most intriguing, save for Chu's, since she begins receiving “secret admirer” letters in the form of poems. It’s fun and exciting to see her romantic side awaken as she dolls herself up and tries to figure out who this mystery poet is. In a very humorous sight gag, she scans the teacher’s lounge, where she sees boring middle-aged men who couldn’t possibly be the author. Perhaps it’s that new sports coach who invited her on a volleyball outing?
Finally, there’s Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang, The Candidate, Rebels of the Neon God), the youngest daughter who inadvertently finds herself in the center of a love triangle. An employee at a Wendy’s, she’s constantly acting as an intermediary between her friend Rachel (Yu Chen) and her constantly put-upon boyfriend Guo Lun (Chao-Jung Chen, Rebels of the Neon God). He’s always being given the runaround by Rachel, who alternately has no interest in him and wishes to play “hard to get.” Jia-Ning, being a kind person, takes a certain pity in Lun’s dilemma and becomes his sounding board and later, his lover. Being the youngest and least experienced, she’s more open and tells Lun, without intending to steer him toward her, that the love he feels for Rachel is “a blur” and that someone you truly love should be a person with whom you can “express your feelings.”
For a film that efficiently bounces between multiple characters and plotlines, Eat Drink Man Woman is surprisingly relaxed, even mellow. There are very few wildly dramatic moments, but that may be why those scenes carry a substantial amount of power since they’re so infrequent. Jia-Jen makes a frenzied announcement to the entire school, demanding to know who is sending her the letters. Jia-Chien sees her father leaving the cardiovascular department at a hospital and bursts into tears, revealing her fears of loss, both personal and physical. At one point, when family friend Uncle Wen (Jui Wang, A Touch of Zen) remarks about her would-be career as a chef, she remarks “No one asked what I wanted.”
Meanwhile, as Chu’s daughters begin to drift away, he forms a relationship with divorcee Jin-Rong (writer/director Sylvia Chang) and her adorable moppet daughter Shan Shan (Yu-Chien Tang). Unfortunately, her mother Mrs. Liang (Ah-Lei Gua, Maiden Rose) has come to live with Jin-Rong and she’s a constant nag, swinging her cigarette around and making inappropriate comments about marriage and beauty. Ah-Lei Gua provides many of the laughs in the film, particularly her annoyance with her ex son-in-law, who sat around “eating hamburgers with onions,” which I guess is bad form in Taiwan. The chef still enjoys being a parent, so he transfers his natural provider instincts to his relationship with the young Shan Shan. Chu discovers that she often receives mediocre lunches or nothing at all, so he spends his days bringing ridiculously extravagant (but to him, quite small) meals to her during school hours. He arrives and Shan Shan’s fellow students surround her as he plunks down “spare ribs, crab with vegetables, shrimp with green peas, bean sprouts, sliced chicken, and bitter melon soup.” Holy shit. I once forgot my lunch during elementary school and I felt like the coolest kid in school when my mother drove over with a freshly-made bacon cheeseburger and fries!
In a dynamic tracking shot, Chu enters a bustling kitchen where the maitre’d is having a panic attack since the shark’s fin soup is practically gravy due to someone buying phony shark fins. Although he needs Wen to act as his taste-tester, Chu is still a master and is able to save an important dinner attended by the governor’s son by making “Joy Luck Dragon Phoenix” from the sludge formed by the fake fins. As he and Wen get drunk, celebrating yet another crisis being averted, Wen comments that Chu’s “as repressed as a turtle.” Having lost his wife several years prior, Chu takes an active and sometimes overbearing interest in the lives of his daughters, making certain they wake up early and on time. He’s even encouraged to try finding a new wife, but he shrugs that off, wisely stating: "It’s like cooking. Your appetite’s gone when the dish is done.” As they stumble off down a hallway, the two discuss everyone’s “basic human desires.” Eat. Drink. Man. Woman.
Abrupt narrative shifts make the film a bit jarring as Jia-Jen marries Guo Lon, announcing her marriage and pregnancy at one of their weekly Sunday dinners. The film cuts directly to the happy couple riding off on Lon’s motorcycle, with nary a concern for the how or the why. It’s as if Lee and his writers, (Lee, James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang – Lust, Caution) simply don’t want to make a massive three-hour film, so they allow the audience to put the pieces together for themselves. A similar moment occurs when we discover some of Jia-Jen's asshole students were pranking her by sending the letters. She falls into the arms of the handsome coach (Gin-Ming Hsu) and next thing you know, they're married and he’s being converted to Christianity.
In one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes, Jia-Chien and Li Kai finally break their sexual tension and begin to passionately kiss. Something occurs to Jia-Chien and she comes to the realization that he was the one who left Jia-Jen all those years ago. He feigns ignorance, but she presses him. Racking his brain, he finally figures out that although he never met Jia-Jen, she was his girlfriend’s classmate. It’s a shocking revelation and one that shatters Jia-Chien's preconceived notion of why Jia-Jen followed her chosen path. Jia-Chien is going through her own personal drama, with the apartment company stealing her money and her ex-boyfriend revealing himself to be a scumbag by suggesting they still remain “friends” even though he plans to marry his current girlfriend.
In the final, climactic Sunday dinner, Chu toasts each of his daughters, getting progressively more drunk. It’s expected that he’s going to ask for Mrs. Liang’s hand in marriage, whom the three daughters don’t care for but believe will at least provide Chu with companionship. In a surprise twist, Chu calls Liang “Auntie” and announces his intention to sell his house and move elsewhere with his new bride, Jin-Rong. Liang collapses and a hectic scene takes place before things finally die down. Months later, it appears that everyone is doing well, with Jia-Chien having bought Chu’s home and busily preparing her own meal, ostensibly taking her father’s place as the family chef. Chu is the only one to attend the dinner, where she serves him soup from her mother’s recipe. He comments that it has “too much ginger” and, in a bit of magical realism, they realize his sense of taste has returned. The two share a moment before a quick fade-out.
There’s an early Robot Chicken sketch where Ang Lee is giving a press conference about his latest film, Hulk. After allusions to “pretty birds,” he adds: "Surely it won’t be huge flop that ruins my career...surely." Thanks to the sheer breadth of Lee’s talent, his Hulk adaptation wasn’t an epic disaster, but it certainly doesn’t make it on many lists of great superhero films, considering how much the genre has overtaken the movie world. Lee often takes an intelligent, unassuming approach to filmmaking. He treats his subjects as human beings, whether they’re 19th century Brits, a green rage-monster, swordsmen, or cowboys. EDMW represented the end of his “Father Knows Best” trilogy, which consisted of Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman.
Hollywood came calling and he made a successful transition into English-language filmmaking with the Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility (1995). The Ice Storm (1997) continued his hot streak, but Lee’s career hasn’t been spotless. Ride with the Devil (1999) was a stunning flop, losing nearly all of its 38 million budget. Lee tends to bounce back quickly after a failure, because Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was a cultural phenomenon. There was genuine suspense at the Oscars that year as Crouching Tiger stood a good chance of winning Best Picture. Of course, as was expected, it had to settle for Best Foreign Language Film, while it would take another 20 years for Parasite to win both. Hulk came next and the anticipation was high considering how he literally (he did the motion capture for the Hulk) threw himself into the project. He jumped back in the saddle, literally, by once again directing another much-talked about cultural touchstone, Brokeback Mountain (2005). This was the most talked-about film of the year and it’s suspected that it was only through cultural bias and latent homophobia that it didn’t triumph over Crash at that year’s Oscars. Lee did win the first of his two Best Director Oscars. Sadly, his post Brokeback work has been spotty, at best. Lust, Caution (2007) caused a stir due to its NC-17 rating, but it was regarded as a bit of a slog. Taking Woodstock (2009) was a disappointment and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) suffered from a lackluster story and an unwieldly title. Of course, there’s Life of Pi (2012), a magical film for which he won his second Best Director Oscar, and yet does anyone talk about it? The only reason I remember it is because the film also won a cinematography Oscar, despite much of it being shot on green screen and in a sterile environment. That was an odd Oscar ceremony, with Ben Affleck’s Best Director snub allowing Lee to effectively snatch up the Oscar basically by default. Let’s just go ahead and skip past Gemini Man (2019), shall we?
It’s the little touches which give Eat Drink Man Woman a distinctive quality and it slowly creeps up on you, subtly gaining poignancy through rich characterization. Snatches of moments, like Chu finding bras tangled up in the wash; a sleepy student drooling during Jia-Jen's lesson; Jia-Chien's boss calling his son an idiot; Shen Shen eating Chu’s leftover dumplings; a vindictive Jia-Jen blasting her stereo to drown out karaoke; Guo Lun showing Jia-Ning a picture of his grandmother; and Chu’s refusal of mountain tea, preferring water since he can’t taste it anyways. Thanks to Lee’s gentle touch, the film explores the very nature of family in a very real, yet episodic fashion. The film begins with Chu carefully preparing a sumptuous banquet for his children, while it concludes correctly with Jia-Chien assuming her desired role as “head chef” and providing a meal for her father, who now, finally, can taste again.