Alive and Cooking
by KAROLLE RABARISON
Eat Drink Man Woman
dir. Ang Lee
Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman follows master chef Mr. Chu and his three daughters in a story that marries a portrait of food as art with commentary on the struggle to parent adult children. The film seems predictable at the start. Here is a father. Here are his unmarried daughters. One by one, each daughter will find a man to marry and carry on elsewhere in the city.
Thankfully, things do not play out in such a hackneyed way. Lee presents characters complex enough to hold our attention without getting so dramatic or overtly sentimental that scenes feel forced. There are exceptions, of course. When one daughter lowers her voice amidst an argument to ask her sister, "And what do you know of my heart?" - a line director Lee recycles for Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. But for the most part, Lee balances heaviness with humor to construct a story of the feel-good variety, and the attention paid to food alone warrants multiple viewings.
Although Chu is famous and well respected throughout Taipei for his culinary skills, within his own home he feels neither affection nor respect. This disconnect exists partly because of the family's inability to communicate and partly because of the gap wherein the younger generation's quest for independence clashes with the elder's attempts to keep the family grounded. Chu mandates family dinner each Sunday and labors for hours to prepare what seems like at least a dozen dishes. Emotions he may misunderstand or repress, but food he knows well - or did before he lost his sense of taste. Now that the aging Chu cannot sample what he prepares, his cooking is subpar and fails to communicate the love that food is meant to represent.
The daughters attend dinner neither for food nor company, but out of obligation. Instead of seeing these dinners as treasured family tradition, they consider them a chore - an outdated ritual. In fact, they call it the "Sunday dinner torture ritual" and take advantage of the setting to announce their plans to finally move out. Yet as much as they want to be on their own, they also feel guilty that the long widowed Chu would be left alone, and they agree that he should find company, a woman his own age perhaps.
Jia-Jen, the eldest, is a sexually repressed chemistry teacher who wallows in a college heartbreak nine years past. She finds comfort only in her religion. When the new volleyball coach tries to get her attention after school, it is only appropriate that he goes unnoticed for an awkward minute while she is too distracted listening to hymns on her cassette player. She uses religious devotion to hide from relationships, but even the church community is not a perfect security blanket. Actually it is yet another set of people who feel entitled to pester her for not being married.
To be a single woman her age is curious enough. To be single by choice, clinging to that status as much as she clings to her faith, makes her an anomaly. The pressure is on. Find a man! Settle down! When a church friend frets over Jia-Jen's empty love life, I roll my eyes at the screen. How archaic of these 1990s fools to nag a gal for being single, right? Of course I quickly realize that nagging remains familiar today. In any case, Jia-Jen secretly wants to be on the prowl, but she thinks romance conflicts with her obligation as the self-designated mother figure to her younger sisters and as caretaker to her father.
Unlike Jia-Jen, middle daughter Jia-Chien is casual with sex and maintains a friends with benefits relationship with her ex-boyfriend. While Jia-Jen is trapped in a thankless job teaching inattentive teenagers, Jia-Chien is an airline executive with an impending promotion that, if accepted, would transfer her to Amsterdam. Jia-Chien embodies modern mobility, not only as a woman blazing her way through the male-dominated business world, but also as the daughter whose allegiance to family and tradition does not tug so much that she would not consider moving West.
He knows his daughter is just as stubborn as he is. If he protests, Jia-Chien would take it as attempt to control her personal life, but in not protesting, Jia-Chien mistakes his silence for disinterest, lack of love even. Later on, Jia- Chien responds in a similar fashion when one of Chu's colleagues asks her to convince the chef not to retire. She simply declares the decision is his and walks away. They may not be explicit about it, but it is evident the two feel mutual respect and affection after all. It is fitting then that in the closing scene, sampling the soup Jia-Chen prepared is how Chu finally regains his taste.
Then there is college student Jia-Ning. Either she is flimsy as a character because she gets the least screen time, or she gets the least screen time because she is a flimsy character. The most interesting thing about her is that while her father is a master of traditional cuisine, she mans the counter at Wendy's. Like everyone else, she makes her big announcement at a Sunday dinner: she is in love with a boy and his parents like her and they want to live together and, oh by the way, it is because she is pregnant. Turns out then that Jia-Ning, the youngest, is the first to move out.
Lao Wen: Lao Chu, don't get upset. Girls eventually leave home. It was bound to happen.
Chu: I'm not upset. Once they leave, I'll have a quiet life.
Lao Wen: Quiet life? I know you. What you want, you can't get. What you don't want, you can't get rid of. You're as repressed as a turtle. That old maid of yours, Jia-Jen, will stick to you for life unless you marry her off!
Chu: Marry who? Since she lost her asshole college boyfriend she has never looked at another man. You know that.
Lao Wen: And now she has the perfect boyfriend: Jesus Christ.
Why then have I watched it at least a dozen times? For visual stimuli - for the cityscape and especially for the food. In the instances that a scene grows stale from the family drama, director Lee compensates with an intimate look at the fancywork behind the cooking process, or with a souped-up display of everything from hot pot to crab dumplings to stir-fried clams. Food might as well be on the cast list.
One of two things happens every time I reach the closing credits. Either I get in daydream mode and scan the internet for flights to a city out East, or I re-watch the opening scene then proceed to turn the kitchen into a veritable chemistry lab. Eat Drink Man Woman has not inspired me to start a food blog à la Julie Powell. It is, however, responsible for multiple occasions when I have been awake at 3 a.m. cooking everything I could find in the fridge and pantry until dawn finds me surrounded by a haphazard menu - lentil stew, grapefruit yoghurt, roasted carrots with ginger, and so on - that I can't possibly consume in one day. I'm no artist, but the process, the hands' labor, is enough. Fancy or not, I'll take the food for company.
Karolle Rabarison is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in the Carolinas. She last wrote in these pages about Tibet. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
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