The title comes from one of the Confucian classics, describing the basic human desires and the need to accept them as natural. The film’s subtitles translate the maxim as, “Eat, drink, man, woman. Basic human desires. Can’t avoid them.” And Old Chu, the hero (Sihung Lung), complains, “All my life, every day, that’s all I’ve ever done. It pisses me off. Is that all there is to life?” I suppose Ang Lee and Chu might answer, Yes, and that’s enough.
The title has no connectives and mixes verbs and nouns, and that's okay in Chinese grammar. It introduces the whole idea of Chinese-ness and Ang Lee’s explicit project. Critics call his first three movies his “father knows best” films. In them, he wanted to make the best things of Chinese culture available to world-wide audiences. He wants Americans in particular to appreciate the cuisine, martial arts, tai chi, but above all, the basic Confucian value of li, translated as ritual or propriety, and associated with the centering role of the father in the family.
Some critics have nastily described his work as “tourist-friendly.” Be that as it may, Ang Lee is playing here with the importance of food and eating in Chinese (and therefore Taiwanese) culture. A former student of mine, now Professor Ming Dong Gu, did a fine paper likening the importance of food in Chinese culture to sex in American culture. Food is so important in China that to say a simple hello, you can ask, “Have you eaten?” At least you can if it’s around meal time and you are elderly and remember the times of food shortage. As a blog on Chinese traditions says:
As an informal greeting, Chinese people like to use “chi le ma?” — which means “have you eaten yet?”— when it is the time for a meal. Foreigners who don’t understand this kind of custom might regard this as an invitation to have a meal together. However, this is just a simple greeting, not a real invitation, so [you] can reply with “chi le” or “mei chi” which means “yes, I have eaten” or “no, not yet” (Russell, Brizee, Angeli, et al.)
”Have you eaten?” are the first words spoken in this film, and they are gently said by its hero, Old Chu, probably to the woman he will marry in the finale. Chu is a master chef, expert in the several different cuisines of traditional Chinese cooking, and cooking is the central image in Eat Drink Man Woman.
Eating in this film is done Chinese style. That is, diners do not each have his or her plate of food which each “owns.” Rather, each picks pieces of food from communal dishes. Diners may have small plates to catch the drips or bowls for soup, but basically the food is open to all. This fits the general pattern of East vs. West. We in the West see ourselves as autonomous, self-made individuals, while Eastern cultures see people as wholly interdependent. An Op-Ed in The New York Times sums up the contrast as rice culture vs. wheat: rice requires farmers to act as a group; wheat we grow individual farm by individual farm http://tinyurl.com/kk79q2z .
Near the end of Eat Drink Man Woman, Chu delivers another key speech: “I cannot live my life like my methods of cooking. I can’t wait until all the ingredients are prepared and then cook.” For the long opening of the film we watch Chu rather brutally prepare his ingredients for the big Sunday dinner. But, sad to say, Old Chu has lost his sense of taste. To tell if he has made a dish as it should be, he has to rely on his friend and fellow-chef Old Wen (Shui Wang).
Chu’s “ingredients” are three daughters, all now pretty grown-up, whom he is trying to launch into life. All four live in Taipei (the opening shot is of traffic) in a mix of traditional Chinese culture and modern, globalized society. These are the still unprepared ingredients of the life he is trying to fashion into something pleasing to the senses.
Jia-Jen is the eldest (Kuei-Mei Yang). She teaches chemistry at an all-boys school in Taipei. She has remained a spinster, heartbroken by a failed college love affair nine years ago. She lives for her Christianity, and she is exceedingly devout (an instance of globalization. Many Chinese see Christianity as colonization).
Jia-Chien is the middle daughter (Chien-lien Wu). She is a rising executive in an international airline company that is currently bidding to get extra routes in Australia (more globalization). She cooks and even wanted to become a chef, but her father wouldn’t allow that, saying that being a chef is a man’s job. So she is a quite successful executive, climbing the corporate ladder, with a lover on the side. The three times when we see a photo of Chu’s dead wife, it is this actress’ picture.
Jia-Ning is the youngest daughter, little more than a teen-ager (Yu-Wen Wang). She is in college but works at a Wendy’s (globalization again). When we meet her, she is stealing a boyfriend away from her best pal, a young man who reads Dostoevsky (do I need to say it?).
I think all this globalization is simply a fact of modern life like my eating in a Japanese or Thai restaurant. But to Chu’s keen sense of Chinese tradition, it is a dislocation and distortion. It creates a lot of exotic ingredients that he must somehow put together to make his life and his daughters’ satisfying, like a good meal. He tries to cling to the old by cooking a magnificent, traditional feast each Sunday which the three daughters must attend. They, however, call it the “torture chamber” because he and they use the dinner to make troubling announcements about their lives. It may also be a torture chamber because Chu has lost his sense of taste, and the food may simply not taste good. Indeed, Ja-Chien says as much. Food is the way Chu relates to his daughters, and it’s not working.
The film tells the stories of the three sisters and the father. The youngest sister’s story is the least complicated. Jia-Ning takes a fancy to her best friend’s boyfriend. Jia-Ning’s friend is playing hard-to-get, the boyfriend is upset, and Jia-Ning moves in. But they seem happy enough in the happy finale. His scooter makes another instance of that image for youth.
Jia-Jen teaches a complicated chemistry class (especially when done in Chinese characters). Her students are bored, and her colleagues are boring. One boy is reading a love-note which Jia-Jen angrily crumples and throws at the wastebasket. But then . . . She is idly watching a volleyball practice in the schoolyard when the handsome coach (Chin-Cheng Lu) dislocates his shoulder. She watches, horrified, as a senior coach pushes it back into place.
Why this curious episode of the dislocated shoulder? Simply as a plot device, it enables Jia-Jen to meet the handsome volleyball coach, but I think “dislocation” equals disorder, and it is the overall theme of this movie to overcome disorder associated with the decline of old ways and replace disorder with a new order. (A volleyball team, I suppose, makes another instance of “cooking” ingredients to make a whole.) I think this odd little episode also highlights Jia-Jen’s fear of the body. It leads her to safeguard her virtue by clinging for nine years to the memory of a college affair and by devoting herself to a prudish Christianity.
Once Jia-Chien has exposed the fakery involved in clinging to the old love affair and once Jia-Jen has discovered the fakery in some new love poems she has received, she quite improbably breaks out of her repressions. She lets her hair down. She stops isolating herself by listening to hymns on her dysfunctional tape player. She decides to out-loudspeaker the karaoke-playing neighbors who have been annoying her, and she commandeers a PA system to confront the whole school about the faked love poems she has been getting. Embracing the volleyball coach, she seems to have gotten over her prudery, and surely she has when she marries him. The body imagery associated with her and the coach peaks when he gets baptized by total immersion. The plot associated with Jia-Jen is part of the general movement of the whole action plot from separate, disordered “ingredients” toward an enjoyable and fulfilling whole.
The film spends most of its time on the affairs of Jia-Chien, her failed purchase of an apartment, her gauche lover, her promotion, her attraction to the handsome negotiator Li Kai, the question of her leaving for Amsterdam. In all of these she is behaving more like a man than like a traditional Chinese woman. Where the other sisters end up in the conventional roles of wife and mother, she ends up alone and a chef. Her father has moved out of the house, and she is left to take care of it and make a special dinner for him. She is now the mother. (At least temporarily. She is apparently taking the job in Amsterdam.)
He in turn has become the father again—quite literally. Instead of marrying the appalling Mrs. Liang (Ya-Lei Kuei), he turns to her daughter, Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) and her daughter, cute little Shan-Shan (Yu-Chien Tang). His sense of taste has returned and with it his sexual potency. The father, so important in Taiwanese culture, has become a father again. In sum, the film has “cooked” its separate, somewhat disordered, “ingredients” until it ends with a situation that satisfies us (or me, anyway). And it is a situation that has absorbed both globalization and the transition from one generation to the next.
What I find satisfying in Ang Lee’s work is the way he takes these (to me) disparate elements and “cooks” them into a whole. Scooters, for example. They are a trivial part of the film, but they occupy the opening shot and Lee emphasizes them at various points. The opening shot, therefore key, shows traffic. Cars create an opening through which scooters scoot. Cars are an older, richer form of transportation, associated in this film with Chu and his executive daughter Jia-Chien. Scooters go with the young, the Dostoevsky reader and the volleyball coach. The shot is an emblem for one generation taking over from another—and that’s this whole film. Or electronics. Jia-jen moves from her isolating and spasmodic tape player to huge loudspeakers and a public-address system that addresses the whole school. The image dramatizes her transformation.
Others have written about ex-actor Ang Lee’s skill with actors, but I admire what Lee has described as his “cubist” film style. He builds his film by a series of short scenes, each focused on one of the main characters, as in this sequence. Jia-Jen tries to immerse her class in chemistry symbols while rejecting a love-note. Cut to Jia-Ning pronouncing a French phrase from Apollinaire about the contrast between an old-fashioned shepherdess and the Eiffel Tower. Cut to Jia-Chien’s razzle-dazzle presentation about buying Australian air routes. Each scene sheds light on the others, from the stifling repressions of Jia-Jen’s life to the opening up of Jia-Ning’s world to the huge expansiveness of Jia-Chien’s. Or one could read the three scenes as moving from the eternal (like chemical elements) to the transient (air routes). One could go through this film, particularly the first third, to find again and again this rich, yes, “cubist,” development of multiple perspectives through brief, but telling scenes. This is how he “cooks.”