Eat Drink Man Woman – Film Review

A delectable, heartwarming Taiwanese comedy-drama about dysfunctional family, food and sex.

I came across this 1994 movie made by director Ang Lee in his native Taiwan on Netflix one night, and thought I’d watch it; I do have a soft spot for movies that somehow involve or revolve around food.

Mr Tao Chu is a taciturn, prickly widower and a semi-retired master chef, who is regarded as a living legend in his field. Though at the peak of his powers as a chef, Mr Chu no longer gets the same pleasure out of his work and seems to have lost his joie de vivre. Thanks to the modernisation, American influence and arrival of fast food, less and less people in Taipei appreciate the endangered craft of traditional Chinese cuisine. Worse still, he’s losing his sense of taste, the one thing central to his identity.

At home, Mr Chu spends most of every Sunday preparing a sumptuous feast of classic Chinese dishes for his family – his three unmarried daughters who all live with their father but seldom cross paths with him, or each other for that matter. Not given to emotion, these fantastically elaborate dinners are the only way for Mr Chu to communicate with his children and express his affection, but instead of a warm familial communion these dinners are a torturous experience for everyone involved. Still, as full of discomfort and tension as they are, the Sunday feasts are the only thing still keeping the family together.

As Tolstoy put it in Anna Karenina, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and all of Mr Chu’s daughters have their own reasons to find their lives unsatisfactory. The oldest, Jia-Jen, still heartbroken after a college love affair, has converted to Christianity and is now working as a strait-laced school teacher. The baby of the family, Jia-Ning, works in a fast food joint and has a crush on her friend’s discarded boyfriend. The one who clashes the most with Mr Chu is the middle child, Jia-Chien, a dynamic yet brittle airline executive whose own culinary talents never received support from her father, something she’s never forgiven him for. She finds an outlet in the meals she cooks for her ex-lover, who she still has occasional sex with.

Unsurprisingly, Jia-Chien is the first one to drop the bombshell at the family dinner, announcing that she is moving into an apartment of her own, but she’s not the last one. The “little announcements” at dinner that shock the family become something of an established pattern, keeping the otherwise low-key and mellow story engaging with twists and surprises.

Director Ang Lee explores the familial relationships and clash between the modernity and traditional values in something like a series of understated, beautifully realised vignettes. On paper, the sisters’ romantic developments would sound hopelessly cheesy, but Lee has a knack for coating the soapiest scenarios with a sheen of tastefulness (sometimes detrimentally so – I always felt that his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could have used a bit more cheese). Though unassuming, the movie has a way of sneaking up on you with its wit and affection for its characters. There are also gently humorous set pieces, such as the one in which Mr Chu is summoned to rescue a prestigious banquet after inferior ingredients threaten to turn a signature shark fin soup into a disaster.

The cooking scenes and the shots of scrumptious dishes alone made the movie worth watching, especially the memorable opening sequence of Mr Chu preparing one his intricate Sunday dinners that displays the artistry and techniques of high-end Chinese cooking. It reminded me of what a pleasure it is to simply watch a true master being good at their craft, and made me feel hungry despite watching the movie on a full stomach.

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