Monday, October 22, 2018

CANON OF FILM: "EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN"

EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN (1994)

Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Ang Lee, James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang




For some reason, and I’m not sure why, but until now, I kept thinking I also posted a Canon of Film entry on “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” already. It feels like a movie I meant to get to a long time ago; I suspect what happened is that I must have started posted on the film at some point, but for one reason or another it just got pushed aside and I decided on something else. I think what happened is that I just got a little stumped trying to explain the film’s greatness. That happens sometimes; it’s vastly easier to describe all the technical greatness of say ‘Citizen Kane” or some Kubrick film or whatever than it might be for some movies that are just, well, just, entertaining films. Sometimes we admire something because of how well they tell the story or even just because we like the story we’re telling. I had a similar struggle writing my Canon of Film post on “Back to the Future” as well for basically the same reasons; technically there’s nothing innovative or important about that movie, even storytelling-wise, it’s not that different from several other time-traveling stories, and I guess on the same, there’s not much that’s inherently unusual or unique about this film; it’s basically just a family dramedy.

And yet, there is something special about this film. When I first tried to write this, my focus was on Ang Lee. The Taiwanese-born director is one of the world’s most eclectic and I’d argue best directors working today. I’d also, even after winning multiple Oscars I rarely hear his name brought up in that regard, probably because he’s something difficult to get a hold on. He’s capable of making almost anything; he is practically impossible to place in a genre, as he seems to seamlessly switch between them, and many times between continents. He’s willing and able to conquer the works of Jane Austen with “Sense and Sensibility,” then switch to a martial arts romance in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and then make a superhero film like “The Hulk”, and I consider those films his minor works; (Although, I’ll admit, I probably need another viewing of “Crouching Tiger….”) his very best films like “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” “Life of Pi”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Lust, Caution”, among others, sometimes their even harder to grasp a natural consistent underlying theme or motif of his, but if there is one, and I’m not sure it’s entirely consistent, but I think he’s fascinated with repression and hidden passions.

Come to think of it; I doubt you can really have one without the other, An Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film and the second film of what’s loosely referred to as Lee’s “Father Knows Best Trilogy”, along with “The Wedding Banquet,” and underrated “Pushing Hands”,  essentially the movie is about, characters who struggle to release and reveal their real feelings and emotions, even thought, that’s literally what they end up doing every time they sit down for dinner. The film centers on a great Chinese food chef, Chu, (Lee favorite, Sihung Lung) who’s lost his sense of taste and smell. If there’s an ingredient that makes this particularly movie delectable, it’s definitely the food; it’s one of the best foodie films of all-time. When not putting out fires at the restaurant, Chu, everyday makes these wonderfully elaborate dinners that would my family for a week for dinner with his three daughters, who are so used to it, they barely react to nightly dinners that make our mouths water. They’re so used to this preparation and the food, they can spot their father’s minor taste flaws, and are possibly the only people not impressed with passionate cooking, and the amazing-looking food.

Jai-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) is the oldest, she’s become a businesswoman working for an airline, and is making plans to move out. Jai-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu) has been hurt by a boyfriend years ago, has become a Christian, and works as a mousey high school science teacher.  Jai-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is the youngest, still in high school, and works at the local Wendy’s. We follow each of these characters, and yet, we constantly find ourselves trying desperately to keep up with them and their ever-changing lives. Chu puts all his feeling and emotion into his food, and whether cooking for his daughters, or the neighbor girl down the block, and that leaves his daughters trying to find their own way in the world, until we find out the real story with the sudden constant announces, happening at the dinner table. In fact, nearly every dinner begins with someone saying the phrase “I have an announcement.” On repeated viewing, this gets hilarious, and even though we easily follow these characters through their own personal dilemmas, we keep seeming to be surprised by their announcements. It’s seems the movie’s so repressed, that it doesn’t reveal the events until after they’ve happened and through these grand gestures around the dinner table, is the only time anything can be told. It’s hard to describe all the events the family goes through, there’s too many of them, and too many characters, and just when you think you have a grasp, you don’t. That’s not simply the unpredictability of life, that’s the richness of the characters, and there are a lot of characters. They may be reserved, but they are filled with thought, emotion, passion, compassion, love, and lust, and everything else that goes into that nightly dinner.

If this sounds a little familiar, you might have seen the American remake “Tortilla Soup,” which used many of the elements, and created a story about a Mexican-American family, lead by the great Hector Elizondo as the master chef. It’s also a very good movie, and not while it is a remake, it’s got its own unique touches, and is definitely worth watching as well. I’m actually surprised this film hasn’t been remade more often, its core story about family and food will cross many culinary and ethnic divides. It’s also simply a fun movie. Unpredictable, even on multiple viewings, it’s a family epic, that barely leaves the dinner table, much less the house, yet, by the end, we feel like we’ve traveled thousands of miles and through dozens of lives.

“Eat Drink Man Woman,” the basic principle of life? I don't know, but if it is, I think it’s more enjoyable if you can really taste it, you know?

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