Eat Drink Man Woman (Blu-ray Review)16 Mar, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Stars Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang.
Ordinarily, a Taiwanese filmmaker might not seem like one who’d necessarily get the green-light to take on a major-studio Jane Austen adaptation, but when Ang Lee was hired to direct Sense and Sensibility in the mid-1990s, he’d recently finessed a consecutive pair of character-driven charmers that had ended up with nominations for the foreign-language Oscars. The rest is history (especially academy history, given this consummate artist’s subsequent Best Director Oscars for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi), and a fresh Blu-ray look at the second of the two Taiwanese imports shows that it hasn’t lost a beat. (The first of these, The Wedding Banquet, is one I plan to re-watch soon.)
As a title, Eat Drink Man Woman seems pretty apt, given that it deals with four sets of romantic relationships (involving three daughters and a father) plus a lot of food. The culinary dimension comes naturally here because widowed Chu (Sihung Lung) is master chef at a Taipei eatery so elaborate that when the camera follows his snake-ish entrance into the kitchen when he’s called to come in from home to solve a cooking emergency, the famed Copa scene in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas may come to mind. Papa Chu cooks all the time even on his own clock, and Sunday meals at home are always a big deal — the place for occasional sibling arguments or major announcements for the daughters to blurt out for family consumption along with the dumplings and sauces. All three young women can cook as well and each is attractive in her way, though middle daughter Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu) is a stunner who has just gambled her life savings on a condo that will get her out of living with Chu, only to learn that she’s up for an airline-exec promotion and transfer. The paternal thumb they’re under is an issue for each of the sisters because Chu is prone to the kind of dyspeptic moods one might naturally suspect from a master chef who, wouldn’t you know, has managed to lose his own taste buds.
There’s a consistent loopiness here that makes the movie a lot more than just a very pleasant two hours, with tight construction that moves with ease through the individual stories. Oldest sister Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) runs her classroom like something of a humorless martinet while the students conduct themselves like older Taiwenese versions of the kiddie cut-ups in The 400 Blows. According to family lore, she long ago took herself off the market after a disastrous college relationship — and when she finally does eye a guy, he’s a little idiosyncratic (a volleyball coach who tends to dislocate his shoulder with any good spike or defensive move). Meanwhile, baby sis Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yung) has fallen into a romance with the supposed squeeze of her favorite co-worker — at a Wendy’s. There’s no reason that a Wendy’s in Taipei should be funny at all, but there’s something about the tone or universe the movie establishes with ease that makes it a good throwaway gag here. (What does Chu think?)
The biggest question mark turns out to be the middle daughter, the one who would seem to have the least trouble finding a man, assuming this is what she wants. What she does want is independence (hence, the condo), but she’s also drawn to a father who seems to be lonely despite an overly gabby woman who has her sights set on him — one the daughters finally acknowledge, to each other, is an impossible pain. This relationship’s wrap-up is loopy as well, though it seems consistent and credible with what has come before — sending us out of our home viewing venues (as it did in ’94 theaters) feeling satisfied without any bloat. The result is still a lovely mix of family drama and social satire (Austen-like, in fact, without trying to put too fine a point on it). This is also one of the better looking Olive releases, of many, that I’ve seen. We can’t taste the food, but it looks so good that the imagination suffices, and Jia-Chen engenders her own fantasy thoughts as well. A lot of “And you can cook, too?”-type thoughts must come her way.