Eat Drink Man Woman: Ang Lee’s Final Panel in Trilogy

Eat Drink Man Woman, the strangely but accurately titled new picture from Ang Lee, is the final work in his trilogy of movies about the friction in traditional Chinese families, caused by the great influence of Western culture on the younger generation.

In some ways, Eat Drink is the opposite of Pushing Hands (1990), Lee’s feature debut that very few people saw in this country, and The Wedding Banquet, the hit satire of last year.

In the earlier films, Lee explored father-son relationships, where the offspring’s lifestyles initially upset the parent. In contrast, Eat Drink looks at the interaction of father-daughter, where it’s the parents’ rigid mores that disappoints and alienates their children.

Eat Drink is an ensemble piece, with such Lee regulars as Sihung Lung, Hong Kong Sylvia Chang, and stalwart Taiwanese actress Ah Lea Gua. Composed of four interlinked stories about a cook at Taipei’s Grand Hotel and his three daughters, it’s a story of a family whose members have lost the ability to communicate with one another. The father and his daughters meet each Sunday for a sumptuous meal, but at each dinner the family members become more and more distanced from one another. The daughters have romances, and the father find it hard to accept the varying shadings of Western attitudes his children are now embracing.

Lee’s other films were characterized by a warm humor and a gentle, sometimes fraught interaction between the family members. They also had a simpler, linear storyline. But the tone of Eat Drink is darker and it also has a more complex structure. In terms of technique and visual polish, it’s Lee’s best film.

In an interview in Cannes, where the film premiered, the director elaborated on the consistent themes of his work: “In Chinese culture, you must submit to your parents, as they are the ones who give you life. For thousands of years, the Chinese have built a society on this arrangement of the family unit. But now, they’re facing a crisis, a transition. A younger generation wants a Western-style individual freedom, but the concept of filial piety still haunts the Chinese family.”

As for the “strange” title, Lee holds that it reflects the fact that food and sex are the basic human drives. The director is thrilled that The Wedding Banquet was the first Chinese film to feature a homosexual kiss, and he prods the sometimes duplicitous attitudes of mainstream Chinese society towards sex: “Sex is erotic, and (it) is how families come into being, but Chinese families will never talk about it.”

Eat Drink boasts the most elaborate food preparation and the most delectable meals you have seen since Like Water for Chocolate, or the 1987 Oscar-winning Danish film, Babette’s Feast. But that the food is more sexy and interesting than the plot or characters says a lot about the movie. I found the narrative a bit shallow and excessively melodramatic–a well-made soap opera.

Oscar Context:

Like Ang Lee’s previous film, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman represented Taiwan in the Best Foreign Film Oscar category, but did not win.

The winner that year was Mikhalkov’s Burnt by The Sun from Russia.