Mr Chu (Lung) is a retired hotel chef in Taipei, Taiwan, who still shares the family home with his three adult daughters. Jia-jen (Yang), the oldest, is a Christian chemistry teacher who falls in love with the new school coach, Ming-dao Chou (Lu). The next daughter, Jia-chien (Wu), whose relationship with her father is the main focus of the film, is a successful executive at an expanding airline company who moves on from her modern, nostrings sex relationship with Raymond (Chan) when the suave Li Kai (Chao) arrives at her office. The youngest, 20-year-old Jia-ning (Wang), gets pregnant by her best friend’s ex-boyfriend. Chu himself keeps secret his developing relationship with their neighbour Jin-rong (Chang) while preparing school-meals for her young daughter, Shan-Shan (Tang). Chu’s oldest friend and colleague Old Wen (Wang) dies suddenly. Jia-jen and Jia-ning marry their lovers while Chu and Jia-chien, his favourite daughter, are finally able to express their strong emotional attachment as he leaves to live with Jin-rong. Throughout the film, food and its preparation both punctuates and enables the development of these relationships.
Eat Drink Man Woman is Ang Lee’s third feature film and forms the final part of his ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy, following Pushing Hands /Tui shou (1991) and The Wedding Banquet/Xi yan (1993). All three films depict a clash between cultures: between youth and old age; between China and Taiwan; between tradition and progress; between East and West and investigate the freedoms and constraints inherent in family structures particularly those between fathers, daughters and sons. In each film the father is played by veteran martial arts actor Sihung Lung (here as Mr Chu, a retired master chef) and it is through his gentle and surprisingly progressive persona that contradictions and conflict are finally resolved. The trilogy also takes the repression of individual desire in the face of social pressure as one of its central themes and it is this overarching concern that informs all of Ang Lee’s films to date.
The English title of Eat Drink Man Woman is a literal translation of the Chinese proverb ‘yin shi nan nü’ which suggests the interdependence of contrasting elements such as ‘the difference between male and female’ and that ‘between eating and drinking’ (Dilley 2007: 72). Dilley goes on to argue that in Lee’s film this saying is ironised by Chu who uses the phrase to reflect on the complications inherent in even the simplest of relationships. The complex nature of human existence, the film suggests, cannot be summed up by the cliché of yin and yang.
Many of the shots in the film are framed as posed photographs with groups of characters closely clustered together in medium and close shots. While these shots emphasise the faces of the characters, the other dominant style of framing is of hands working with food. This second type of shot tends to avoid the face of the cook, not least because the actors are not the ones dextrously chopping, skinning, decanting or frying. The actual cooking was performed by three talented Taiwanese chefs. Regardless of the practicalities behind this aesthetic, the concentration on craft and ingredients lends these sequences a timeless property reflecting the ancestral nature of these actions. Many cooks have performed these same actions over many centuries – no modern electrical gadgets are used in any of the preparations – and we are made aware of continuity between the modern and the ancient. Lee however problematises this continuity by stressing the fragility of this tradition and the inevitability of change.
After the death of Old Wen, his hotel kitchen comrade, Chu explains that his own expertise in the traditional cooking of mainland China is no longer needed or even wanted as all has become an indistinguishable melange. The film is an elegy for a certain purity of culture but it is an elegy that is not necessarily nostalgic as Lee does not romanticise the iniquities and repression that is an essential part of those traditions. While food and its preparation could be seen in the film as a ‘metaphor for love’, Ma argues that it ‘is poorly produced as the chef can no longer control the right amount of seasoning and is poorly received as the daughters contemplate a move away from the family prison’ (Ma 1996: 195). The weekly feasts that Chu prepares for his daughters, what they call ‘the Sunday torture ritual’, are his attempts at shoring up the ruins of his own decline – his loss of smell and taste – and that of his family, and by extension of his culture and history, which is the history of China itself. As Dariotis puts it, the ‘orgy of cooking belies the repression of appetites’ (Dariotis and Fung 1997: 208). Food becomes not a celebration of life and community but a symbol of death and chaos.
At the centre of Eat Drink Man Woman is one of the tenets of Confucianism: filial piety, the duty of respect and care owed to one’s parents (see Fairlamb 2007; Laine, 2005: 106). In a 2000 interview Ang Lee says, ‘The essence of morality in the East is “filial piety”: loyalty to your parents, to your family. It’s where you come from. It’s where your heritage comes from.’ As in many of Lee’s other films, the drama here is in the conflict between social duty and individual desire: ‘Had [Jia-chien] left the family home rather than take care of her elderly father, she would have been acting in opposition to traditional expectations. Likewise, had she remained, she would have opposed the “modern” sensibilities of the “West”, which place individual satisfaction over the welfare of the family,’ (Dariotis and Fung 1997: 210). For Lee this contradiction leads inevitably to a state of ‘total guilt’ (quoted in Chan 2004: 8) and this phrase points to the importance of Freudian psychoanalysis in Lee’s thought. While discussing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Lee says, ‘But you have to use Freudian or Western techniques, to dissect what I think is hidden in a repressed society – the sexual tension, the prohibited feelings’ (quoted in Chan 2004: 6). The conflict between Superego and Id, between obligation and desire, between ‘the perennial cultural desire for individual freedom and rights versus a concern with social and communal responsibility’ (Chan 2004: 7) is one that runs through all his films.
It is accent that marks this contradiction between new and old, East and West, since, according to Ma, Sihung Lung’s ‘near-perfect Beijing accent’ aligns Chu clearly with the old order of China, but by ‘contrast all the younger, white-collar Taiwanese immigrant-children speak Taiwanese Mandarin and English, symbolising their distance from the imagined Chinese core’ (Ma 1996: 197). Chu is literally and figuratively out of time and stands as well for the impossible possibility of a non-communist China: what if Mao Zedong had not helped establish the People’s Republic of China in 1949? It is perhaps no coincidence that the Grand Hotel in Eat Drink Man Woman is a pastiche of traditional Chinese architecture, constructed in 1952 on the site of a Shinto temple. The hotel, like Chu, is imposing and fiercely traditional, but in the film it floats alone in the darkness, adrift from history and taste.
The clash of cultures and histories in Eat Drink Man Woman is also evident in its own production history. Lee’s first two feature films, Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet, were financed by the American independent company Good Machine and all three scripts were written or co-written by its head, the non-Chinese speaking James Schamus (see Pidduck 2006: 397). While the first two films are set in the United States, all three star Sihung Lung as the elderly Chinese traditionalist who reveals a surprisingly progressive attitude towards the end of each film: in Pushing Hands he accepts his Western daughter-in-law; in The Wedding Banquet he acknowledges his gay son; and in Eat Drink Man Woman he allows his daughter to cook for him. Chu leaves with his pregnant young wife for a modern apartment, while Jia-chien decides to stay in the family home. In the final scene, he arrives alone for a final meal cooked by his daughter, and at the very moment in which he accepts his daughter’s cooking, he regains his sense of taste (this part of the script coming apparently from Schamus – a bona ex machine if there ever was one). As the daughter now feeds the father, so the traditional roles are both reversed and endorsed: the father cedes his power but the daughter accepts her father as her responsibility. The end of the film manages to simultaneously upset and reconfirm the established order.
There are two main ideological readings given of the film. The majority opinion seems to be that the film is finally conservative and a betrayal of Taiwanese values in favour of Western tastes and colonial-global politics with a rather noxious playing up to stereotypes of the exotic and inscrutable oriental. There is however a minority view, as expressed by Dariotis and Fung and by Laine among others, that the film challenges easy dichotomies between East and West, between the family and the individual and even between rights and duties. Perhaps we can see this latter reading more clearly when considering the changes made in Tortilla Soup (Maria Ripoll) the 2001 remake of Eat Drink Man Woman which relocates the action to the Mexican diaspora in Los Angeles. While Tortilla Soup is in many ways an uncanny replication of the original film, with scenes and dialogue reproduced almost word for word and shot for shot (with the Californian-Mexican cooking overseen by popular chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger), the ambiguous ending of Eat Drink Man Woman is replaced by a family celebration bringing together all generations in the Jia-chien equivalent daughter’s successful new restaurant. It is clear that the remake aims to shut down the ambivalence of the original ending where father and daughter establish only a fraught temporary alliance. Tortilla Soup’s anxiety about this provisional solution indicates that Eat Drink Man Woman is perhaps more complex than its critics imagine.
I have used the English tradition of placing the first names – usually hyphenated – first. When a character only has one name, this is generally the family name.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Taiwan. Production Company: Ang Lee Productions, Central Motion Picture Corporation and Good Machine. Director: Ang Lee. Producers: Kong Hsu and Li-Kong Su. Screenwriters: Ang Lee, James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang. Cinematographer: Lin Jong. Music: Mader. Editor: Time Squyres. Cast: Sihung Lung (Chu), Kuei-mei Yang (Jia-jen), Chien-lien Wu (Jia-chien), Yu-wen Wang (Jia-ning), Sylvia Chang (Jin-rong), Winston Chao (Li Kai), Lester Chit-Man Chan (Raymond), Chin-cheng Lu (Ming-dao Chou), Guo Lun (Chaojung Chen), Ya-lei Juei (Mrs Liang), Jui Wang (Old Wen), Yu-chien Tang (Shan-Shan).]1
Kenneth Chan, ‘The Global Return of the Wu Xia Pian (Chinese Sword-Fighting Movie): Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, Cinema Journal, 43 (4), 2004, pp. 3–17.
Wei Ming Dariotis and Eileen Fung, ‘Breaking the Soy Sauce Jar: Diaspora and Displacement in the Films of Ang Lee’ in Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (ed.) Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, pp. 187–220.
Whitney Crothers Dilley, The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen, London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2007.
Horace L. Fairlamb, ‘Romancing the Tao: How Ang Lee Globalized Ancient Chinese Wisdom’, symploke, 15 (1), 2007, pp. 190–205.
Tarja Laine, ‘Family Matters in Eat Drink Man Woman: Food Envy, Family Longing, or Intercultural Knowledge through the Senses’ in Patricia Pisters and Wim Staat (eds) Shooting the Family: Transnational Media and Intercultural Values, Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 2005, pp. 103–15.
Sheng-mei Ma, ‘Ang Lee’s Domestic Tragicomedy: Immigrant Nostalgia, Exotic/Ethnic Tour, Global Market’, The Journal of Popular Culture 30 (1), 1996, pp. 191–201.
Julianne Pidduck, ‘The Transnational Cinema of Ang Lee’, in Dimitris Eleftheriotis and Gary Needham (eds) Asian Cinemas: A Reader and Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006, pp. 393–404.
Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley, ‘Cultural Representation of Taste in Ang Lee’s Eat, Drink, Man, Woman’ in Lawrence C. Rubin (ed.) Food for Thought: Essays on Eating and Culture, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008, pp. 225–37.
Ti Wei, ‘Generational/Cultural Contradiction and Global Incorporation: Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman’, in Chris Berry and Feii Lu (eds) Island on the Edge: Taiwan New Cinema and After, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005, pp. 101–12.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.