“Eat Drink Man Woman” - Ang Lee (1994)

Taiwan-born Ang Lee (pinyin: Li An) has been a highly successful film director whose versatility over the years has been demonstrated with productions undertaken across several different continents and with themes spanning multiple different genres and social contexts – for example: The Wedding Banquet (1993), Sense and Sensibility (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Lust, Caution (2007), and Life of Pi (2012).  But I think Lee’s greatest film was one of his earliest, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994).  This is a compelling work that, despite its Taiwanese/Chinese cultural context, is concerned generally with how romantic concerns can interact with family values, and so it can be appreciated by just about everyone [1,2,3,4,5,6].  

The film’s story about a master chef in Taipei and his three grownup daughters was scripted by Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang.  And the film’s overall production values, including the acting, were excellent, but extra special praise should be singled out for the cinematography by Jong Lin and the film editing by Ang Lee and Tim Squyres.  In some respects it is the cinematography and film editing that help elevate this film to a truly high status.

The film opens with a detailed presentation of Lao (“Old”, an honorific in Chinese) Chu preparing an elaborate dinner for his three grownup daughters.  The daughters are unmarried and so live at Chu’s home, but they are often out attending to their own personal affairs.  However, Lao Chu expects, indeed demands, that they all unfailingly attend the Sunday dinner that he prepares for them every week, as a ritual and as a precious instrument for family bonding.  Chu has been a widower for the past sixteen years and has largely raised his three daughters during that time on his own.  And like many parents, he is concerned that his daughters, who are all exposed to modernist influences of contemporary Taiwanese society, will start drifting away.  So for Chu, the weekly Sunday dinner is crucial; but for the three daughters, the dinner is boring and almost a form of torture.

For the rest of the film, the viewer is treated to four parallel and interlaced narratives that trace the mostly separate and interpersonal concerns of Chu and his three daughters.  We soon discover  the following basic information about them.
  • Lao Chu (played by Sihung Lung) is an aging but famous chef in Taipai and is the master chef at a huge and important hotel in Taipei.  In fact it is widely said that Chu is Taipei’s finest chef, and he is generally used to being in command of those around him.  However Chu is now losing what is critical for a chef, his sense of taste.  So he has to rely on his old friend and fellow master chef Lao Wen (Jui Wang) to sample all his food concoctions to make sure they have been seasoned properly.
  • Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), Lao Chu’s oldest daughter, is about 29-years old and works as a high school chemistry teacher.  She is sensitive and reserved and, compared to the other sisters, an upholder of traditional values.  In addition, she has recently become a devout conservative Christian.  Jia-Jen has a close woman friend, Liang Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang), who was a former school classmate and with whom she often gets together to share concerns, such as Jin-Rong’s drawn-out divorce process.  Jia-Jen’s other friends, worried that she is getting old to find a marriage partner, try to help her in this area, but Jia-Jen shows no interest in dating anybody.  She still hasn’t gotten over a failed love interest when she was in college nine years ago.
  • Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) is the second-oldest daughter and quite different from Jia-Jen.  Unlike her attractive but quiet and modestly dressing older sister, Jia-Chen is glamorous and outgoing.  She is an energetic, rising executive for an airline company, and she is accustomed to expressing her opinions when she feels like it.  She is also the least tolerant of their father’s Sunday dinners and intends to move out of the home as soon as the new apartment she has purchased is ready.  On the romantic front, she is confidant and bold, e.g. she has a purely sexual relationship with a male friend, Raymond (Chit-Man Chan),  that involves no commitments from either party.  She treasures her independence.
  • Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest sister, is 20-years-old and works at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant while attending college classes.  She is generally upbeat and usually deferent to her more opinionated older sisters.
So all four members of the Chu family, though different, are relatively well-balanced; and in accordance with family traditions, they are expected to share with each other what is happening in their respective lines when they get together on Sunday for dinner.  But over the course of this film, we see that all four develop romantic relationships concerning which they feel guarded about sharing with each other on Sundays.  And the presented subtlety of those guarded feelings is part of what makes this a great film.  

In this connection there is an early scene in which a Chu family Sunday dinner is interrupted by an emergency at Lao Chu’s posh hotel.  We learn that a big feast for an important gathering at the hotel is in preparation but due to some cooking hitches is evidently headed for disaster.  Lao Chu is summoned to rescue this desperate situation, and in a highly professional way he does indeed save the day – and, in the process, demonstrate his impressive culinary prowess.  Afterwards, Lao Chu and Lao Wen become somewhat inebriated and reflect on what they have learned over the courses of their long lives.  In a reflective moment of gloom, Lao Chu asks his friend,
“Eat drink man woman.  Food sex . . . Is that all there is?”
The rest of the film offers an answer to that question.

As the interlaced narratives of the four Chu family members unfold, the viewer learns about the evolving romantic relationships that develop for them. 
  • Jia-Jen is not looking to date anyone, but she has an accidental encounter with her school’s new volleyball coach, Ming-Dao (Chin-Cheng Lu), and further encounters stir an interest on Ming-Dao’s part,  Ming-Dao is naturally outgoing, and his interest shown is gradually reciprocated by the shy Jia-Jen.
  • Jia-Chien finds herself attracted to Li Kai (Winston Chao) a handsome and suave new manager at her airline company.  It looks like they are certain to become lovers, but at the last minute she learns that Li Kai was the man who broke Jia-Jen’s heart nine years ago.  So Jia-Chen has to call things off with Li Kai.  About this time Jia-Chen also learns that Raymond has chosen to break off his relationship with Jia-Chen and get married to another woman.  So now for the time being at least, Jia-Chen is bereft of lovers and “alone”.
  • Jia-Ning’s close friend and coworker at Wendy’s, Rachel (Yu Chen), appears to be in the process of dumping her heartbroken boyfriend Guo Lun (Chao-jung Chen), and knowing that Guo Lun will always be waiting for her outside of Wendy’s after work, she asks Jia-Ning to shoo the lovesick boy away.  But Jia-Ning’s sympathetic encounters with Guo Lun soon lead to a mutual attraction between the two.  It turns out later that Rachel was only toying with her boyfriend and didn’t want to lose him, but her turnaround is too late.
  • Lao Chu does not appear to be looking for any romantic liaisons, but his three daughters worry that he must do so or he will wind up lonely once the daughters eventually all leave home and attend to their private lives.  Lao Chu’s isolation is only worsened when his longtime friend and confidante, Lao Wen, suddenly dies of a heart attack.  But when the daughters learn that their friend Liang Jin-Rong’s widowed mother, Madame Liang (Ah-Lei Gua), has just returned to Taipei from overseas and is now sometimes socializing with Lao Chu, they optimistically assume that, even though the woman appears to be pushy and overbearing, she would be a suitable marriage partner for their father.  However, Lao Chu devotes most of his attention to affectionately spoiling Liang Jin-Rong’s young six-year-old daughter, Shan-Shan (Yu-Chien Tang), by secretly making the girl tasty lunches to take to school every day.  For Shan-Shan, Lao Chu is like a substitute daddy.
Finally, mostly at Sunday dinner confessions, the viewer learns how these relationships have turned out.  Jia-Ning announces that she is leaving home to marry her secret lover, Guo Lun, by whom she is already pregnant.  Jia-Jen marries Ming-Dao and even gets him to convert to Christianity.  

But most shocking of all is what happens with Lao Chu.  At a family dinner to which the Liang family (Madame Liang, Liang Jin-Rong, and Shan-Shan) have been invited, Lao Chu makes a marriage proposal not to the one everyone expects – Madame Liang, but to Jin-Rong, with whom Lao Chu has been having a secret affair.  This explains why Lao Chu has been showering Shan-Shan with paternal affection for awhile.  And it also means that the daughters will not be abandoning their father to loneliness.

So romantic love appears to have conquered all, and, in particular, to have overshadowed traditional family mores.  Is that the film’s final message?  Not entirely [6].  Jia-Chen, the most glamorous and attractive of the three sisters, was always the one who was least affected by traditional values.  She always found her father and his Sunday dinners insufferable, and she was the first daughter to announce her plans to move out of the family home.  But by the end of the film, she has changed.  She abandons her affair with Li Kai out of concerns for her older sister’s feelings.  And she declines a promotion from her airline company to be an overseas vice president, because she wants to stay closer to her family.  In the final scene she is shown cooking a meal for her father at the old home and showing hitherto unseen warmth for him.  So traditional family values now apparently have meaning for her.
Consequently we can say that what we have here is not just a battle between Modernism and Tradition or between East and West.  Overall, what makes this a great film is the display of subtle and complex interacting feelings presented by the main character actors.  My favorite performance was that of Kuei-Mei Yang as Jia-Jen, but they are all compelling, and you may have another favorite.

Also outstanding is the cinematography.  There are many emotive closeups that help convey the feelings in this story.  I would also like to call your attention to three extended tracking shots that I thought were very effective.  One is a two-minute shot showing an early conversation between Jia-Ning and Guo Lun.  A second is s 90-second shot of a conversation between Jia-Jen and Liang Jin Rong.  And a third sequence that lingers in my memory is a two-minute shot of Jia-Jen and Li Kai conversing while walking through a store.

So getting back to Lao Chu’s question that he asked early on in the film,
“Eat drink man woman.  Food sex . . . Is that all there is?”
We can say that the film’s response is,
“No, there is much more.  And it all comes from love in all its various guises and modes.”  
Love can be manifest in both traditional and modern circumstances.  The key thing is that, no  matter what the situation, love represents the most sincere and authentic aspects of who we are.  And this is what Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman puts on display for us.

  1. Hal Hinson, "‘Eat Drink Man Woman’", Washington Post (19 August 1994).   
  2. Desson Howe, "‘Eat Drink Man Woman’", Washington Post, (19 October 1994).   
  3. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Eat Drink Man Woman”, Austin Chronicle, (19 August 1994).  
  4. Janet Maslin, “FILM REVIEW; Avoiding Basic Human Desires, or Trying To”, “The New York Times”, (3 August 1994).   
  5. Norman N. Holland, “Ang Lee, ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’ (1994)”, A Sharper Focus, (n.d.).   
  6. David Sorfa, “Eat Drink Man Woman: Summary & Analysis”, Jotted Lines, (23 February 2020).   

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