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‘Eat Drink Man Woman’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 19, 1994


Ang Lee
Sihung Lung;
Kuei-Mei Yang;
Chien-Lien Wu;
Yu-Wen Wang
Not rated

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When the shark fins purchased for the governor’s banquet dissolve into brown sludge, the alarm goes out for master chef Chu, who flies to the rescue like a culinary Superman. In Taipei, where the sumptuous comedy “Eat Drink Man Woman” is set, Chu (Sihung Lung) is a kind of superhero. At home in his kitchen he works completely from memory, mixing the ingredients for his divinely arcane dishes with the speed and efficiency of a true master. And the gastronomic creations that emerge from his labors arrive at the table like glorious works of art.

“ Eat Drink Man Woman, “ directed by Ang Lee, has the same beautiful balance of elements. Mellow, harmonious and poignantly funny, the film uses the prism of the old man’s artistry to examine his life and his relationships with his three headstrong daughters.

A prickly widower who keeps a careful check on his emotions, Chu has begun to question the meaning of his life. Though still robust and at the peak of his powers as a chef, he seems to be getting less pleasure out of his work. With the invasion of fast foods and the decline of traditional Chinese culture, no one seems to care about the culinary arts. What’s more, he even seems to be losing his sense of taste. After boozing late in the night with an old friend, he can’t help expressing his frustrations. “Eat, drink, women and sex. Is that all there is?”

His daughters—all three of whom still live at home—don’t do much to raise his spirits. The oldest, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), is a strait-laced high school teacher whose heart was broken nine years ago by her college boyfriend, and as a result she appears well on her way to becoming an old maid. The middle daughter, Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), seems to be going as fast as she can in the opposite direction. A modern-thinking, dynamically attractive executive at a Taiwanese airline, Jia-Chien can’t wait to get out of her father’s house, while the youngest, 20-year-old Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), is so caught up in her boy-craziness that she barely seems to notice the others.

Though the father and his daughters share the same house, their paths seldom cross except on Sunday, when Chu whips up a feast for their weekly family gathering. The adage that a man is never a hero in his own home has never been truer than it is here. As Chu brings out one miraculous dish after another, the daughters nitpick and make faces about the food. They also use this moment to make what they refer to as their “little announcements,” the first of which is Jia-Chien’s bombshell that she is moving into an apartment of her own.

Though the story line is complicated, Lee maintains a poised directorial hand. The lives of all the characters here are in a state of profound flux. Jia-Jen has developed a secret crush on her school’s new volleyball coach, and Jia-Ning has scooped up a girlfriend’s discarded beau. At the same time, Jia-Chien discovers that she is the leading candidate for a promotion that would take her to the firm’s Amsterdam office, a situation made even more perplexing by her attraction to a charming associate from America.

Providing a background for these romantic upheavals are old Chu and his love affair with food. Other films—“Tampopo,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Like Water for Chocolate”—have used food as a sensuous metaphor, and “ Eat Drink Man Woman” follows gloriously in that tradition, stimulating your mind, your emotions and your gastric juices all at once. For Chu, food is a means of expression, not only of his creativity but also of the feelings of love and affection that he can’t otherwise articulate. Food is his way of reaching out, of connecting.

As the relationships evolve and deepen, there seems to be a surprise around every corner—for both the characters and the audience. But what is most surprising, perhaps, is how involved we become with these people. As satisfying as food can be, the fullness we feel at the end here is far richer and more complex than that offered by the most extravagant meal. “ Eat Drink Man Woman” is a delicacy but also something more—something like food for the heart.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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