Eat Drink Man Woman (Taiwan, 1994) [NYAFF Winter Showcase 2020]

Ang Lee’s exquisite 1994 film, Eat Drink Man Woman is the third entry into what’s retrospectively referred to as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy, preceded by Pushing Hands (1991) and The Wedding Banquet (1993). It is a masterful achievement that helped put the Taiwanese director on the map and catapulted his career to international fame.

The plot follows Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), one of Hong Kong’s best chefs, and his three adult daughters, Jia-Ning (Wang Yu-Wen), Jia-Chien (Wu Chien-Lien), and Jia-Jen (Yang Kuei-Mei). Jia-Ning, the youngest and most care-free of the three women, becomes involved with her best friend’s boyfriend. Quite surprisingly, she’s the first one to move out of the house when she finds out she’s pregnant. Jia-Jen, the oldest daughter, is a high-school chemistry teacher who has given up on romance and has dedicated her life to Christianity. Her interest in love is rekindled when she meets the school’s new volleyball teacher, with whom she immediately falls in love. She becomes the second daughter to move out when she marries her crush. Lastly, Jia-Chien, the middle daughter, is a successful businesswoman up for a promotion at her company. Of all three daughters, she has the most complicated relationship with her father, as they were never able to see eye to eye on what her future would be. She eventually ends up accepting the promotion and moves to Amsterdam.

Mr. Chu is unhappy with the changing world around him. His taste buds are gone, his daughters are slowly moving out, and his expertise in traditional Chinese cuisine is becoming obsolete in an increasingly modernized world where Western food becomes the norm. He must reconsider his priorities and the things that mean the most to him. So he takes a bold move towards a new life.

Eat Drink Man Woman is in many ways a coming of age story, a tale of transformations. Each character – Mr. Chu, his three daughters, their friend Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) – abandons their old life for a new one. The change is sometimes funny, sometimes radical, and sometimes heartbreaking. Ang Lee gets at the heart of what it means to be a family in the modern world, putting on full display the clash between the new and the old. Just like in his previous film, The Wedding Banquet, the old guard must adapt to survive, finding out that such adaptation is not necessarily a bad thing. Despite all odds, Mr. Chu manages to craft a happy life for himself. And only when he’s moved on, he’s able to reconcile his differences with Jia-Chien.

Of course, one of the film’s main attractions is, and will always be, the food that’s on display from the opening scene. A lot of the film’s runtime is devoted to the cooking of delicious traditional Chinese meals, making it impossible to get through Eat Drink Man Woman without some serious cravings. Food is an important component of the film’s overall message. “We communicate with food,” says one of the daughters, as endless shots of mouthwatering meals flash across the screen. More than a symbol for the changing times, the food represents one of humanity’s basic needs, perhaps one that the family uses to drown out all others. As other needs come out into the foreground, so the family dinner table grows emptier.

Eat Drink Man Woman is a near-perfect movie brimming with talent from all sides. The moments become uncharacteristically slap-stick at times, but the emotion always comes through. It’s the kind of film that everyone, no matter their exposure to Chinese-language cinema is, can enjoy.

Eat Drink Man Woman is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase 2020 on February 15.