In modern Taipei, retiree and master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) lives with his three adult but unwed daughters. There is the eldest; Jia-jen (Kuai-Mei Yang), a schoolteacher and devout Christian; the youngest; Jia-ning (Yu-Wen Wang), a naive college student; and the rebellious middle child Jia-chien (Chien-lien Wu), a mature career woman who wants to move out of their family house as soon as possible. As the three daughter each search for their own bit of romantic happiness, Chu must navigate fatherhood with adult daughters and find a way to stay happy in the changing landscape of modern Taiwan and the onset of old age.
Ang Lee directs this tender and tasty family drama that satisfies foodies and cinemagoers in equal measure. With complex characters and some remarkably poignant acting, Eat Drink Man Woman is one of those rare films that I find myself revisiting at least once a year. An early film from Lee, it nonetheless retains his sense of pacing and carefully crafted presentation which would herald him as one of the world’s greatest directors.
The late Sihung Lung gives perhaps his best performance as the overwhelmed and quiet Chu. Exhibiting a sense of displacement in what his cotg has become, his character shines in the kitchen where he maintains dominion as one of the preeminent culinary experts in the country. Use of impressive stunt hands effective adds to the illusion as well as provides a magnetic look at Chinese cuisine that will make the mouth water.
The three daughters share great moments but each is independent each of the others to go for their goals individually. Yang’s turn as the eldest is played for more of a comedic bent with her interest in a fellow instructor at odds with her reserved Christian traditionalism. Wang’s portrayal is an interesting look at youth in love in Taipei with the general tone of love can find you at surprising moments. Wu arguably gets the majority of the screen time with her realistic and pragmatic take. She’s absolutely stunning as the sexy career woman looking to embrace the modern world but held back by her feelings of regret and unresolved father issues. Lung’s performance is made even stronger thanks to these three as his character can truly be seen in each of his daughters in some way.
Intimately shot and with expert editing by Lee and frequent collaborator Tim Squyres, the film emits a warmth that extends to the character’s lives and our own opinion of them. We truly get to know these characters, their motivations, and we get to revel in their joys and lament at their losses. While the film itself is mostly on the light side, it is clearly Lee’s expertise and attention to detail which makes the film so fulfilling when it could have been just another forgettable comedy in the hands of a lesser director.
My first introduction to the work of the immensely talented Ang Lee, Eat Drink Man Woman has earned a special place in my heart. With its absolutely delectable mix of visual engagement and compelling storytelling, there is a level of enjoyable I have with each viewing that most films rarely provide, contemporary or otherwise. Completely lovely and heartfelt this is a family drama up there with the best of Asian cinema.
You may enjoy this if you liked: Flavor of Happiness, Wedding Banquet, and/or Tortilla Soup