Written by: Ang Lee, James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang
Starring: Sihung Lung, Kuei-mei Yang, Chien-lien Wu, Yu-wen Wang, Winston Chao
Even if it comes at an unexpected time, every adult needs their jumping-off point where they no longer need to be dependent on their parents. While 18 has become the defacto age for some, it ultimately depends on the individuals, Eat Drink Man Woman shows how it can come at any time as a widowed father prepares for a future where his adult daughters make it out on their own.
Beloved and famous Taiwanese chef Chu (Sihung Lung) prepares his weekly extravagant Sunday dinners for his three daughters who all live with him and experience romance in their own way. Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) has not recovered from her broken engagement and has turned to religion as a way to find meaning. Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) works hard as an executive at an aviation company and has a casual sexual relationship with an ex-boyfriend of hers. Jia-Nin (Yu-Wen Wang) goes to college and begins to gain feelings for her friend’s on and off again boyfriend.
Opening with probably the greatest display of making food ever captured on film, Eat Drink Man Woman shows the exceptional culinary skills Mr. Chu possesses. Almost therapeutic in a sense as he pieces together all of these tremendous looking dishes. As he meticulously prepares everything, it cuts to scenes of his daughters finishing their errands and about to head home for the weekly dinner with varying degrees of excitement. This opening sequence shows a juxtaposition in a way where it displays these daughters dreading having to attend this dinner, while with the limited context nearly anyone watching this cooking would love to join the table. It shows the emotional cracks existent in this family, which gets played out in full force as the narrative progresses.
Each of the pathways these daughters go through speaks to their personalities and how they must navigate being a woman in those spaces. This gets seen mostly through Jia-Jen and Jia-Chien, who get much more attention narratively than the youngest, Jia-Nin. Jia-Jen works as an airline executive and comes up with many stunningly great ideas to advance the company but her sense of duty to her work comes with a dual-edged sword demonstrating her not getting the same level of respect as her male colleagues but also a lack of passion overall for the subject matter. Jia-Chien teaches an all-boys class of science and has to deal with someone writing her romantic letters. A weird and cruel level of harassment written by someone looking to make her look vulnerable in a way other male teachers do not have to encounter. They deal with their issues with the outside world but also have a high level of tension between themselves with Jia-Jen hoping to get her apartment and find independence sexually while Jia-Chien feels the obligation to take care of their father and disapproves of her sister’s promiscuity. Their simmering rivalry and contempt for each other battles with their sisterly duty to always be there on Sunday for the dinners and put up with each other.
In the middle of the sisterly drama is Mr. Chu dutifully cooking with the exceptional skill he has garnered through a lifetime of culinary practice and the scenes where he prepares the meals demonstrate the process of this being a true art form. From the precision of the cuts to the care utilized to prepare each dish, director Ang Lee harnesses so much energy in these scenes even with it being another day in the office for Mr. Chu. Cinema has been filled with different movies depicting the food-making process with some wetting the appetite more than others. Movies like Chef and Ratatouille have always served as my go-to features for this bit of inspiration in taking in the love of cooking but Eat Drink Man Woman shows the skill in such an affecting manner because it remains the main conduit for how Mr. Chu shows his love for others. He does not speak much about his emotions but he lays it all out in what he cooks and how he prepares it for his loved ones. It makes even the iciest conversations held at the dinner table to be filled with warmth, especially as the story continues to unfold and revelations hit the light of day.
Ang Lee works so well in these small, emotionally arresting dramas because of the way he navigates these entanglements and how it impacts all of the characters. He has such a directorial eye for capturing emotionally potent moments as seen through his other showstoppers like Brokeback Mountain and Sense and Sensibility. It makes for such a quandary to learn of him seeing these stories as less important than his emptier exercises in technological feats. Regardless, he taps into the emotional dynamics of this family in a truly riveting manner where much of the communication occurs in the way food gets consumed and made by each of the characters. It says much more than the words they speak.
With some truly surprising turns in the story, Eat Drink Man Woman proves to be a moving and effective family piece, which warms the heart in every way. It will make you salivate and wish you could attend the Chu family’s weekly Sunday dinners even if you have to put up with the tension and piercing looks. Everything culminates in showing how the simplest of gestures and acts can leave a lasting impact on others, specifically through the act of making food. No matter how much time gets spent, taking the time to combine all of the ingredients for the preparation for someone else to consume shows a level of care words cannot effectively communicate.