Sunday, January 7, 2018

Eat Drink Man Woman [dir. Ang Lee]

Eat Drink man Woman's (EDMW) title comes from a line in the film, "Eat, drink, man, woman. Basic human desires. Can't avoid them." If Yasujiro Ozu were to make a food-focused film it would come rather close. Of course this isn't Ozu but Taiwanese film-maker Ang Lee, one of the most interesting movie directors today for the sheer range of films that he has made, from intimate relationship dramas / dramedies to large scale spectacles, and sometimes interesting mixtures of the two. EDMW comes from Ang Lee's luminous 90's phase, shortly before he made the jump to Hollywood where he put out Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm, proving his masterly grasp of varied cultural sensibilities (and perhaps the universality of human emotion).
At its core EDMW (notably Ang Lee's only film actually set in Taiwan) is a relationship drama with the aging widower Mr. Chu and his three daughters Jen, Chien and Ning. Mr. Chu is the archetype patriarch, benevolent but domineering. The girls in one way or another feel constricted by the atmosphere at home. The eldest Jen is shaping up to be the unwilling spinster saddled with the looking after of the old man, Chien - the openly defiant one - looks for escape in apartment purchases and transfer promotions, while young Ning is making her way through college and the tricky path of relationships. This simmering pot of familial tensions is exemplified in the Sunday dinner, which also brings in the film's food connection. You see, Mr. Chu is a respected and passionate chef (even if the script signals his aging and dissatisfaction with life with a growing loss of taste senses) and the Sunday meal is a cornucopia of meticulously prepared and exquisitely crafted delicacies. It is a symbol of the bond between father and daughters even when the bond is so strained the girls consider sitting through the meal a torture ritual.
EDMW has the rhythm of a multi-threaded family soap in the hands of an intelligent and sensitive maker, with each strand given generous time to play out in full: Jen's quiet desperation for romance (or at least a form of escape from her colorless single status), Chien's resentment of Mr. Chu's controlling nature (it is suggested that her love of the culinary art was stifled by a father that pushed her out of the kitchen and into an admittedly successful corporate career), Ning a fast-food joint employee (What a slight for the epicurean Mr. Chu), tenuously building a relationship with her workmate's boyfriend. What of Mr. Chu himself? Alienated from his own daughters, Mr. Chu finds his outlet of paternal love in preparing elaborate lunchboxes for a young divorcee neighbor's schoolkid. There are other supporting characters each of whom in their own way stirs up the wok. With some mild surprises the film eventually brings each character's arc to a close and establishes a new balance of relationships and emotions for these people we have come to know and understand, leaving us satiated, like at the end of a multi-course family feast.
EDMW cannot be recommended as an incisive character study and is unabashedly sentimental, but only a joyless scrooge would deny its hot-soup-like heartwarming qualities, and in its detailed depictions of food preparation and presentation, it's a delight to behold (Vegetarians and people on a diet beware).

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