Ang Lee (whose name is a syllable away from the non-existent but eerily appropriate word "angstly") is one of those rare directors who always captivates me. He has worked in a wide variety of genres from the Jane Austen love story disguised as chop-socky flick, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to an actual Jane Austen adaptation, Sense and Sensibility. For all this diversity there is a theme of romantic and spiritual longing that pervades his work, none more so than his most famous film, Brokeback Mountain.
The opening image of Lee's 1994 film, Eat, Drink, Man Woman is a chopstick lodged deep in the throat of a live fish, who is gasping his final breaths. Master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) drives the chopstick home and adds the hapless fish to an enormous steaming kettle as part of his ritual preparation for Sunday dinner. It is an unsettling and compelling image, one that sums up the best of Ang Lee's work, which is usually so visually beautiful that you forget you've often watched something that can be quite ugly as well. His films remind you of great paintings and indeed he cited Vermeer as an influence on Sense and Sensibility and I felt like parts of Brokeback Mountain were Charles M. Russell canvases come to life. Lee is a sensualist who emerses the viewer in the texture of everyday things. Bear this in mind while watching Eat, Drink, Man and Woman. You will probably get the urge to make a large banquet and failing that, will order a an unwise quantity of ultimately disappointing Chinese takeaway as I did after watching the movie.
Chu has three grown daughters and it is difficult to tell whether his crisis is that they are leaving or that they haven't left yet. I guess life is life that. You alternate between clinging to and pushing away your loved ones. The eldest daughter, Jia-Jen, is a Christian which makes her something of an odd duck in her family, but she seems just as mysterious and closed off to herchurch friends as well. Jen uses a variety of techniques to keep the world at arm's length including inventing an elaborate lie about a college boyfriend who dumped her and broke her heart. This changes when she becomes the object of attention at the school where she teaches. A handsome, dashing new volleyball coach pays a very small amount of attention to her and she blooms anew. It reminded me of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, except that her Wentworth winds up being friends with her sister and she lives happily ever after with her Cousin Elliot, so to speak.
The middle daughter, Jia-Chien is the most driven, successful and openly critical of her father. Over the course of the film we learn that she is also a talented cook but that her father discouraged her from pursuing it as a career. Instead she succeeds as an executive at an airline, while filling time in a horribly empty friends-with-benefits relationship with her ex-boyfriend. At work she becomes intensely attracted to the guy that supposedly dumped her sister in college. Another Jane Austen moment happens when she confronts him about it and he gives his own-Darcy-esque version of how he ruined the happiness of a most-beloved sister.
The youngest daughter, Jia-Ning, ironically works at a fast food restaurant. She begins a secret affair with the boyfriend of co-worker, whose "treat him mean; keep him keen" policy has back-fired disastrously. Master Chu, for his part has plenty of secrets of his own. He has lost his sense of taste and relies on the palate of his friend Old Wen at work and he has been having a secret affair with one of his daughter's friends and contemporaries, a young divorcee.
At the heart of Chu's problems is the loss of his wife and the slow, steady alienation of his daughters. He is a cook with no appreciative eater. The theme of needing someone to care for, to cook for runs through the film and Chu finds happiness when his girlfriend's daughter falls in love with his cooking and recommends it to all her school friends. Chu happily trades the child for all her mother's tasteless meals since he can not enjoy them anyway. Eat, Drink, Man and Woman is like a cooking show that spends the bulk of its time going over the proportions of spices and the origins of ingredients. Yet for all this fine, detail, it packs a very satisfying emotional pay-off to the story.
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