Written by: Ang Lee, James Schamus
Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-lein Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang
Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman is beautiful and it’s just so easy to enjoy. Ageing master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) lives with his three ungrateful adult daughters, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), Jia-Chien (Chien-lein Wu) and Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang). The daughters are trying to figure out how to leave home and start their lives, Chu tries in his silent way to keep his family together. Eat Drink Man Woman is about sense and desire, and it’s always about love.
So much goes unsaid in this film that the characters have to find ways to communicate without words. Each of the daughters is working out how exactly to engage their sexuality, from the youngest meeting with a boy after work to the eldest trying a period of chastity. Chu communicates through his cooking, always, and he has a lot to say. Every Sunday Chu cooks an enormous multi-course gourmet meal for his daughters who begrudgingly attend his “Sunday dinner torture ritual” and it is through these meals that he is communicating his love for his girls. Music, food, cigarettes, sex, wine, tea, whatever it is each character in this film has a sensual obsession that they engage in with ritualistic care. Ritual is central to the film, whether its Chu’s hours of dinner prep, or Jia-Chien’s delicate preparation of tea, everyone here takes care in the preparation as to enjoy the outcome. The point of it all is that none of them take the same care with those they love, they are selfish, hasty and they take their families for granted.
The film’s emotional depth is perceptive and compelling, but what I want to talk about is the food. Oh, the food! I don’t know how long ago, I stumbled across the opening scene and I’ve watched it a dozen times but I hadn’t, until now, seen the rest of the film. The opening shots of the film are of Chu, specifically of his hands and the food he is preparing with amazing care and expertise. Lee shoots this, and other scenes of food preparation, as other directors shoot sex scenes. Intimate close-ups and an obsessive gaze follow every step of Chu’s work, sparing none of the gory details. Lee does not avoid the gutting of a fish or the de-boning of a chicken, nor does he devalue the alternating chaos and waiting of the kitchen; he knows what goes into a truly great meal. So much of the film is given to watching the preparation of food, from the cutting of an orange to the slicing of squid. Lee is fascinated by the process and so am I. I loved watching these scenes, they’re hypnotizing and they elicit such a wonderful response; not just from the sight of the delicious food, but from the passion that is implicit in such mastery and tedium.
Eat Drink Man Woman is intended to be felt, and it is. The title is about the things we need, really need in life and the film is about how consuming that need is. Lee combines order and chaos, activity and waiting, love and anger, push and pull and tells the story of human desire. A lot happens in the film but it never feels overworked, perfect moments of tranquility in the kitchen balance the ups and downs of life. Chu’s love for the food is a love for so much more.