Director Ang Lee registered pretty much a perfect score on last year's The Wedding Banquet. His low-budget story of a gay Taiwanese man living in New York and trying to hide his sexual identity from his very traditional parents was not only well-made enough to please the grumpiest critic, it was also amusing enough to appeal to a wide audience. Not coincidentally, this added up to a big payday. Variety dubbed The Wedding Banquet "the most profitable film in the world in 1993" -- quite a statement, given that last year was also the year of Jurassic Park.
Considering the financial success of The Wedding Banquet, one might wonder why producers make films that deal with topics other than troubled families, taboo sex and food. Lee, for one, seems to have no intention of abandoning a winning formula. In the opening sequence of Eat Drink Man Woman, the director makes it clear that his newest movie will, at the very least, attend carefully to the food part of his trifecta. We see Tao Chu (Sihung Lung, who played the father in The Wedding Banquet) at work in his kitchen preparing the traditional Sunday dinner that he shares with his three grown daughters, all of whom have continued to live with him since the death of his wife years before.
Though we haven't yet been told that Chu is one of Taiwan's great chefs, it's easy to figure that out as he puts on what may be the greatest culinary performance ever committed to film -- slicing vegetables with a combination of a surgeon's and a sculptor's touch.
Once the daughters are assembled for dinner, however, we learn that Chu's hard work is in vain -- or, rather, that his performance is just that, a performance for his daughters so that he doesn't have to make a real attempt to communicate with them. The little he has to say concerns how Chinese cooking, and therefore Taiwan itself, is going to the dogs. After a lifetime of manipulating spices, Chu has lost his taste buds, and in any event, he insists, the young chefs have all Chinese food tasting alike.
The daughters attend the Sunday meal dutifully, but one has a bombshell ready to drop. Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), the most "modern" of Chu's daughters (we know this because she indulges in casual sex), is moving into her own apartment. The very thought of this flusters her sisters -- one an old-maid teacher, the other a blithly romantic waitress -- but her father's sense of hearing seems as bad as his taste buds. He simply ignores her and wanders off.
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The plot then takes off on a wandering journey as well, as we follow each of the girls through a romantic episode and through the rounds of their daily lives. The film also follows Chu through furious bouts of cooking that seem conducted largely to ward off his low-level depression.
In its emphasis on father-child relations and cooking, Eat Drink Man Woman works turf similar to The Wedding Banquet, but it doesn't have Banquet's clear center. The film feels too crammed with characters about whom we learn too much, and so we spend most of our time skating across an elaborate surface. Still, Lee serves up his story with good humor. He certainly doesn't tell us anything we don't want to hear, as the film concludes with a series of happy endings. The same was true of Wedding Banquet, but there the happiness felt earned; here, the meal is less satisfying.
Eat Drink Man Woman.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Sihung Lung, Kuei-Mei Yang, Chien-Lien Wu, Yu-Wen Wang, Sylvia Chang, Ah-Leh Gua and Winston Chao.