Eat Drink Man Woman
Director: Ang Lee. Cast: Sihung Lung, Chien-lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Yu-Wen Wang, Sylvia Chang, Jui Wang, Chin-Cheng Lu, Chao-Jung Chen, Winston Chao, Ah-Leh Gua, Lester Chan, Yu-Chien Tang, Yu Chen, Man-Sheng Tu. Screenplay: Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang.

Eat Drink Man Woman, derived from an original script by James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang, and the film's director, Ang Lee, is much more satisfying as literature than it is as film. Even at that, though, the picture is simple, light, and affecting, and hard to hold anything against. Most of the plot can be summarized as a glimpse of what might happen if The Joy Luck Club sat down to eat Babette's Feast. The main character, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), is a consummate chef whose sense of taste has begun to dull as he enters old age. Also growing less secure are his relationships to his three, very different daughters—as though three sisters in the same movie ever have anything in common. In fact, part of what gives Eat Drink Man Woman its appeal, at least for an American viewer like myself, is that the unfamiliar pleasures of the scrumptious fine food and the Taipei setting are comfortably nestled within a tried-and-true, instantly recognizable plotline.

So, as I was saying, Chu has three daughters who all have different ideas about what they want to do with their lives. Oldest sister Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), still nursing wounds from a love that evaporated long ago, now teaches school to a rowdy roomful of horny adolescent boys. Middle sibling Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) has made herself a successful career in an airline corporation, though she might have preferred to prefer the culinary arts her father so magically practices. Finally, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), who comes up with tuition money by working at a Wendy's in Taipei, just wants to get by and get along with everyone, at least until she grows attracted to the lonesome boyfriend of her fickle, teasing coworker.

Actually, Jia-Ning is not the only sister whose routine is disrupted by a new man; Jia-Jen is suddenly pursued by a gym teacher and volleyball coach in her school, and Jia-Chien begins a scrumptiously close working partnership with a colleague who, as it turns out, she recognizes from long ago. Meanwhile, Chu himself mostly notices these romantic, professional, and emotional developments by observing how all three daughters make less frequent and more restless appearances at his ceremonial Sunday night dinners. Chu lives a small life, a quiet life of mostly simple pleasures, though such flavorful delights as Joy Luck Dragon Phoenix are themselves as exquisite in taste as they are in name. Indeed, Chu seems to direct all of his great passions and grand statements into his cooking, so that he may operate on the cool, resilient level that works best in dealing with his three daughters, all of whom still live at home when the picture begins. Still, as in many films in the Yummy Food genre—I'm mostly thinking of yarns like Babette's Feast or Like Water for Chocolate—the zestiness of Chu's dishes are used as material proof that there is more spice and surprise left in this quiet man than all the young folks circling around him seem to think. The movie bears out this prediction that Chu is still alive and well, with a few unexpected maneuvers of his own left to take.

In the meantime, though, we see all that food. Films like Eat Drink Man Woman really don't function too differently from pornography: in both cases, you mount some longing close-ups of either a process or an object that invigorates at least one of the senses, and you titillate the audiences with dish after dish (so to speak). As such, Eat Drink Man Woman occasionally gets a little lazy and throws another Eastern delicacy beneath our eyes to tide us through rather stifled passages in the story, or merely to contribute visual life to a scene that would otherwise have little life outside the dialogue. Lee and Schamus, whose next two collaborations were Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm, are often more confident in the literary aspects of their films than the visual elements, so it helps to have set this story in an idiom of cooking that already makes the picture seem more vital, more layered in its sensory effects than it really is.

There are also a few surprising, abrupt leaps forward in the story, especially given the overall deliberateness of the pace. When a daughter who has been at a similar point in a love relationship for almost a full hour suddenly reveals she has been married, we wonder why Lee has taken so much time with the build-up only to leave out a climactic moment. Ostensibly, we are meant to be as taken aback as Chu himself by these bombshell pronouncements, but that identification is itself troubled when Chu makes his own surprising statements. We are never quite sure where we are situated in this drama, a confusion that takes on particular importance given the theme of generational conflict so prevalent in Asian-dominated dramas. I appreciate films like Eat Drink Man Woman for not outright separating the "good" characters from the "bad" ones, but our point of view is so itinerant in this film that important frictions and stare-downs between the characters are conveyed to us a little too dilutedly. We manage to be on everyone's "side" at once, even when such a neutral position is not possible for the characters themselves.

So Eat Drink Man Woman can be imprecise in its perspective and a little quick to play the trump card of enticing cuisine. These tendencies may keep it from being great art, but they certainly allow for a casually pleasing and easy to watch story about a group of people who are almost always likable and identifiable, even when they aren't getting along. Also, the cast and filmmakers pull off one major task that so many films fumble around with—though more and more characters are constantly being introduced in Eat Drink Man Woman, we never have any uncertainties as to who is who, or how they all relate to one another. If the film is not the sort of succulent feast that Chu so often prepares for his family, it more than qualifies as a pleasing snack, endearing if sometimes trapped in its conventions, but just unfamiliar enough that you never tune out. Grade: B–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Foreign-Language Film

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