Friday, June 17, 2011

Eat Drink Man Woman - Marriage of Life's Elixirs

Most of us know and respect Ang Lee's works. His deep understanding of the fragilities of the human heart have been ably showcased in movies such as 'Brokeback Mountain', 'Lust, caution'. Delving into his filmography I chanced upon one of his earliest works from his Taiwanese roots which was later adapted by Hollywood as 'Tortilla Soup'. The movie - 'Eat Drink Man Woman'. And it was a satisfying discovery indeed. A tale of a father and his three grown daughters living together in Taipei, it looks at the paternal bond between a strict, emotionally distant father and the daughters who are at the wings of taking their owns flights into love, life and liberty.

Chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is the best. His culinary delights have feasted the very important personalities of Taiwan. However, somewhere along the way he has lost his sense of taste. Ironical for a head chef. He cooks out of habit and relies on his longtime associate Wen to tell the quality of his lovingly prepared masterpieces. Indeed food plays an exquisitely important part in the proceedings and to see them being crafted from the ground up is a delight to our gastronomical senses. Where Chu so successfully brings balance in his profession, he flounders to maintain his relationship with the girls.

The eldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is an emotionally repressed chemistry teacher who was thwarted in love nine years ago and has yet to recover. Seen as an old maid by her family, her suppressed desires flutter back to life when she meets the new volleyball coach. The middle sister Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) is possibly the most successful, working as an airline executive in the process of a promotion to their Amsterdam office. Focussed and work oriented, she comes across as the hardest of the sisters till the layers peel to reveal a sensitive, mature personality. She is also an excellent cook whose dreams of following on her father's heels had been shattered by him. Girls don't make chefs, so she was sent to get an education that mattered.

The youngest Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) studies and works at a fast food chain. Her track involves finding love at the cost of her friend's struggling romance and some lies. Alongside runs the track of a family friend, a divorcee with a little girl for whom Chef Chu prepares elaborate lunches to take to her school. There is also the mother of the family friend, a widowed garrulous, borderline rude  woman who has her sights set on the chef. Holding an observant hand with a smattering of comedy, Ang Lee makes us understand the characters. The father who belongs to an old world, is unable to communicate with his offsprings who are no longer his little girls. He prepares elaborate Sunday dinners for his daughters which they must not miss and the process is painful, as a dinner table laden with his lavish cooking worthy of a party, sees the girls pushing around the food unenthusiastically in their plates over stilted conversation. The easy camaraderie and joy of gathering at the table is missing. Hence, maybe his delight in feeding the little school girl and her friends their daily lunch.

The sisters all caught in their own webs, play out equally well. The elder daughter's cautious approach towards opening her heart is especially interesting and rings true. Though the conclusion seemed too comic, for the depths the characterization had provided. The youngest daughter's ironical work place is a sign of the winds changing. From the times of crafting elaborate meals from scratch, where food and its preparation was an art, to the world of fast food. We see both worlds. Finally it is the middle sister's sensitivity that stands out.

The performances all work, the characters are all interesting because they could be any ordinary person we bump into in our worlds. Every life carries a story and when a film maker makes the effort to carve a story around ordinary lives, that is hardly dramatic or climactic, he achieves a 'slice of life' cinema. Ang Lee went on to make a mark in Hollywood and  has made some big movies. This was a very promising beginning from a man who is still growing from strength to strength. As a character says "'Eat Drink Man Woman' which is Food and Sex - Basic Human Desires, cannot avoid them". A marriage of the two, that was dealt with utmost sensitivity and a little humor in this small movie with a big heart.

Available on DVD
Originally Released in 1994
In Mandarin with English Subtitles
Best Foreign Language Film Nominee at the Academy Awards 1995

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