When we first see old Chu, the bewildered father at the center of Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, he's doing what he knows best--steaming fresh fish in his sun-dappled garden, carefully roasting a just-plucked chicken, carving vegetables into exquisite rose-petal shapes. Lee observes these rituals in such concentrated, silent detail that for a while it feels like we've stumbled onto a TV cooking show.
As it turns out, the director is revealing much more than kitchen techniques. Chu, we come to learn, is Taipei's greatest gourmet chef, but he can't find the recipe for happiness with his three disconsolate daughters. Dutifully, these antsy, wounded modernists sit down each week for their long-widowed father's lavish Sunday dinners. But food is not just an inadequate means of communication; it's become a symbol of the old man's unknowing tyranny. A groaning board is the only way he has to express his love, but his daughters' appetites are straining in other directions. So the Chu family's generation gap widens over a steaming tureen of lotus-flower soup.
A leading light of the new and improved Taiwan film industry, Lee burst upon the scene last year with a multiple-award-winner called The Wedding Banquet. It was a pungent comedy with a screwball turn, in which a gay Taiwanese yuppie living in America conceals the truth from his visiting Old World parents through a hilarious sham wedding. Beneath the antics, this art-house hit revealed the U.S.-raised and -educated Lee's serious concerns, which emerge again in Eat Drink Man Woman--the tension between traditional values and contemporary striving, the bargains people must make to draw the best from conflicting cultures.
If anything, the new film goes in even deeper, but Lee's sparkling sense of humor colors almost every scene. Chu (Sihung Lung, who also played the father in Wedding Banquet) wants nothing but the best for his girls, yet he rules their lives with such rigid affection that they all have problems. Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is a heartbroken high school teacher who buries herself in her work and seeming devotion to her father; the middle sister, Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu), is a goal-driven airline executive who coolly resists her father's efforts and neatly compartmentalizes her sex life; dreamy young Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) falls for her best friend's boyfriend.
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Both Lee films released here are Oriental dramas with American comic accents, and both draw their energy from a classic situation--the upset of equilibrium in families that need some shaking up. In Eat Drink Man Woman, with its smothering plates of beautiful food and its repressed sexuality (how about that title), all three Chu daughters are about to enter romances and, perhaps, break the ties that bind them to Dad. He, too, may find the wherewithal to change: Nosy, tactless and funny Mrs. Liang (Ah-Leh Gua), mother of the Chu girls' best friend, has just returned to Taipei from a conjugal disaster in America, and she clearly has her eagle eye on old Chu.
In short, the rich elements of thwarted desire, human nourishment and shifting gender roles are mixed in just the right proportions in the first film Lee has shot entirely in Taipei, and he exerts all his charm and intelligence upon them. Note, for instance, old Chu's touching relationship with Mrs. Liang's little granddaughter. Here, too, the old fellow uses food as coin of the realm. But if you're a kid getting school lunches this good hand-delivered to you every day, what else can you do but open a kind of catering service for your hungry classmates?
You can't eat most metaphors, even ones as delectable as this. But given the culinary masterpieces Lee brings to the table along with all his good ideas, it's a stiff challenge for anybody with a working set of tastebuds not to leap upon the screen and thrash away with a pair of chopsticks. I haven't gotten so hungry watching a movie since Like Water for Chocolate. After Eat Drink Man Woman, you might find yourself running for the nearest platter of Peking duck.
That's not the only reason to see this delightful and intelligent piece of moviemaking, but it'll do as the appetizer.