Eat Drink Man Woman 飲食男女 (1994) – Hong Kong
Following widow chef father Chu and his three adult daughters, teacher Jen, businesswoman Chien, and student Ning, as they struggle to make progress with each of their lives many years after their wife/mother passes away, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman juxtaposes images of the happy and sad in their lives to evoke warmth in conflicts. The writing is clean and neat, providing necessary coldness in longer moments when characters are facing difficult decisions, and the roles are thoughtful and engaging.
But it’s a film that puts great effort in finding your approval, its focus on a neat and tidy ending, quaint and idealistic. Because it aims to please most, if not all kinds of audience members in its dramatic plot, much is stolen, thus making this potentially sentimental kind of a work a cookie-cut family drama. It is a good work, several scenes inspired and deserving of your time and attention, but perhaps, if of a subtler, more careful hand were at play, the whole would have been better, great even. I would be more enthusiastic in recommending it as a watch if it did not deliver a mildly stale display of events unfolding. Watch, but know that it could have been wonderful, its opening very different in feel and delivery than its end.
Overcooked Family Drama
It opens with father Chu preparing an elaborate Sunday dinner for his girls to enjoy, a family tradition for their sharing of weekly announcements and news, and any foodie will die of a whetted appetite, the images of grilled pork and chiffonade veggies very appealing. Chu’s spot as head of the family, also head of his kitchen we’ll later find, is affectionately demonstrated in those early scenes. He takes great care to prepare only the finest for his girls, a display of his wanting the best for their futures, and it was the most enjoyable sequence to watch him cook. He is mostly a listener though at that table, the girls with the floor to speak, really, and we cannot help but sympathize with him, his place on the totem pole significantly lower than those of his daughters, although he is the most interesting. Because he cares so much for them, his needs, such as those for companionship in another woman after his wife’s passing, are unmet. All that he has is his addiction to food and managing the household to the best of his abilities. The scenes in which he gets up early each morning just to awaken his daughters is fun and revealing. His emotions transform him, appearing of a hard, skeletal coating, cold, but, in all truth, he’s the most caring, individualistic of all the characters.
Because I have an affection for food, there’s a weakness in me for onscreen cooking, characters’ foods, and wonderful cinematographic capturing of fiery, smoked blackness of restaurant commotions. There’s an immediate sense of vibrancy with the onset kitchens here, and it’s not hard to infer taste and pleasure of food an analogy on affection for living within the narrative. It’s a display of appreciation, the layering of thematic elements in a food porn kind of a way. When the characters are placed beside their cooking tools, or by the dinner table, the ingredients galore, there’s an expectation on growth and compassion, of sharing and consumption. I swoon for those kinds of details in a film. Even Roger Ebert discussed much of Eat, Drink, Man, Woman a backdrop for the food and a type of symbolism. It was one of his favorite food movies. That bit of detail in Chu’s backstory is refreshing, but much of the remaining characters conform to common trope. Their involvement with the food is too stretched, and it was with them I found disappointment. To use the play on food puns here, they were tasteless. Overcooked, but not well-done if you know what I mean.
Starting with the oldest daughter, Jen, timid and shy, a heavy chip on her shoulders from some failed relationship many years ago, is the most unlucky of all the girls’ lovely relationships. Chien, the middle daughter who landed a profitable Airline executive’s gig, is shown to be a subscriber to snobbery and stubbornness, often displaying resentment with time spent on family matters, her needing to get away and work some more, a different kind of distraction in exhaustion. Ning, the youngest attending college and working part-time at a local Wendy’s, oddly untouched much from Chu and his ideas on cooking, is the most interesting daughter, observing what works and what doesn’t of her two older siblings. Not only them, she watches their friends fail in the face of commitment in relationships too. She wants to find love, but she treads carefully with an off- and on- boyfriend, a supposed ex of her best friend, also a cook at Wendy’s.
Much of the remainder of the film follows them separately then, their choices hidden from the rest -unless they otherwise choose to announce change at their Sunday dinners. Time is spent to coordinate visual differences in their uniqueness, but the art aspects don’t easily jive with the tone and delivery in characters’ dialogue and behaviors. Most of the expository conversations exude excess in forcefulness, not genuinely of care or supposed significance.
There’s one scene near the end where father Chu finally rises to make an announcement of his own at the dinner table, finally. Of it, the camera semi-circles around him and his guests, all the daughters and their significant others then. The lens is wide and far back. Why? Why be far away, and, then, why be moving? Could the characters not demonstrate the needed tone and delivery all their own, that the camera had to steal it? Supplant with confusion rather than poignancy? For fans online and elsewhere that favor this Lee piece, I hear you, but I don’t understand. From everything that we’re given, the sets, the characters, and the conflicts, it’s good, passing some would say, but it’s salty-bitter maybe is a better detail, as it’s of concern to your after-tasting; the reflections on a finished narrative- when it should be sweet.