Focusing the Familiar in Ang Lee's Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

Article excerpt

The Master said, "Focusing the familiar affairs of the day is a task of the highest order. It is rare among the common people to be able to sustain it for long."

Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman a 1994 movie about a contemporary Taiwanese family s struggle to maintain itself and its traditions in a modern Asia rapidly moving toward Westernization. Tao Chu is a master chef at a large hotel restaurant in Taipei. He is widely recognized as one of the finest chefs in Taiwan and according to an associate is considered a national treasure. He is the widowed father of three grown daughters. The eldest daughter, Jia-Jen, is a mid-thirties Chemistry teacher at a high school. She is a devout Christian. She longs for a romantic relationship and constantly endures snide comments about the fact that she is unmarried and without any prospects. Jia-Chien, the middle daughter is a successful executive with a Taiwanese Airline Company. She has a conflicted relationship with her father. She longs to be out of the house, out from under his influence and on her own. Yet at the same time, she fondly longs for the close relationship they had when she was young and helped him in the kitchen. She showed considerable talent as a chef, but her father forbade her from pursuing what he considered a male career and pushed her to get an education. He also banned her from his home kitchen. Her suppressed desire is to be a chef like her father. Jia-Ning is a twenty year old college student who is working at Wendy's.

Food is a central character in the film. From beginning to end the viewer is treated to lavish Chinese dishes painstakingly prepared on screen. Not only is it Chu's livelihood, it is the center of a key ritual in the family. Each Sunday evening the family gathers for an elaborate dinner prepared by the father. Through the eyes of the camera we move through the father's kitchen and catch a glimpse of the artistry, time and care that goes into the preparation of the huge feasts that are put on display at the weekly ritualized meal. There is a strong sense of order and balance here, and one that is ironically missing from his everyday life and his day to day interactions with his daughters.

In a conversation with a friend, Jia-Chien talks about this sense of order and balance as she describes a dish she has prepared. "This is 'Duck Oil Sauteed Pea Sprouts.' One duck--two dishes--two flavors. Hot and cold. A perflect balance. It's ancient philosophy. Food balanced with energy, flavor and nature." Her friend responds with "like mixing yin and yang."

We follow this family as it struggles, grows, and redefines itself. Chu is moving toward retirement, grappling with the loss of his sense of taste and trying to understand himself in changing world. In the course of the film all three of his daughters make rather abrupt life-altering decisions. Intriguingly we learn of these through announcements at the Sunday evening dinners. Jia-Ning falls in love with a young student, gets pregnant and moves out of the house. Jia-Jen falls in love with the high school volleyball coach and marries him immediately. Her justification to her bewildered sisters is that she is a Christian and thus can't have sex with him outside of marriage. Jia-Chien, is offered a Vice President's position with the airline company requiring her to move to Amsterdam. Chu comes forth with the biggest surprise of all. He announces at the Sunday dinner honoring the two, now married daughters that he will marry a neighbor who is the same age as his eldest daughter. Suddenly the family has radically changed and the nature and focus of the relationships have shifted. In one of the last scenes we see Chu with his new wife. She is pregnant with yet another daughter.

All of this is played out against the backdrop of change. The primary instigator of this change is the rapidly encroaching westernization. This threat appears in the film in a variety of ways. …