So it only makes sense that the characters in the movie, all of whom make up the Taiwanese Chu family, feel so unfulfilled: in their personal lives, they lack the long lasting romantic satisfaction they yearn for.
The patriarch of the family, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), is a master chef; to him, the creation of an ornate dish is as offhanded as the brushing of one's teeth. But he's also long been a widower, and has inexplicably lost his sense of taste.
His adult daughters are at a crossroads, too: the oldest (Yang Kuei-Mang) has descended into spinsterhood, the middle (Jacklyn Wu) is sexually liberated but struggling with finding a man as intelligent as she is, and the youngest (Wang Yu-wen) has inadvertently formed a love triangle with a friend's pretentious boyfriend.
The brood's overreaching lacking of the "man" or "woman" desire is tested by the unsteady situation at home. The girls still live with their father, and the latter's been emotionally distant since their mother's death. The generational gap is also pronounced: Mr. Chu's relationship with his daughters often conflicts with the expectations he has of them versus the expectations they have of themselves.
Yet Eat Drink Man Woman is more about personal growth than it is about familial discord. Because if anything, that discord is one of the things that drives the characters to make changes. In store is a sometimes funny, but mostly sensitive and humanistic, slice of life. Like the even better Ordinary People (1980), also about family members trying to reach self-actualization amidst discontent, it doesn't so much reach a point of resolution as it does, eventually, find a new beginning. Nothing is finite in the real world, and so doing away with an unsatisfying existence and chasing after a new opportunity is frequently more effective than a definite conclusion in film.
At the time of the film's release, Lee had only made two features, both of which used familial bonds as catalysts for drama and for comedy. Impressive, then, is how fully formed Eat Drink Man Woman is.
Relatively new filmmakers are rarely as self-assured as Lee, and especially striking is how alive, and how detailed, the film feels. In addition to the filmmaker's constructing of recognizable, plausible characters, the movie is also stylistically rich, using cuisine as plentifully as Pedro Almodóvar utilizes color and using lush photography as means to bring a cinematic silver lining to the lives of the characters.
Most remarkable, though, is how evocative food becomes in Eat Drink Man Woman. Mr. Chu obsessively creates lavish meals for his family whereas his youngest daughter works at Wendy's, signifying the generational gap between father and daughter. (The older generation prizes hard work and meticulousness; the younger generation prefers instant gratification.) In a later scene, the oldest daughter recalls a childhood memory involving her father's food fixation, and in that moment are we inspired to recall our favorite — and least favorite — childhood meals and why they have or haven't stuck with us.
It isn't until the film's middle that we realize that Lee has very intentionally used food as a way to connect us to these characters: dining, no matter your culture or your upbringing, is a crucial part of one's defining of themselves.
But for everything it does right, I nonetheless didn’t always feel connected to the feature’s characters: they so often are characterized by their relationships that we don't always feel as though we know them as they are. Lee, it seems, isn’t all too interested in them when they aren't in close contact with one of the four basic desires. (The youngest daughter, already one of the film's most charismatic characters, almost becomes an afterthought during the last act.)
But we come to like these characters, along with the "stick to yourself" take home message and the aesthetic pleasures (particularly the cuisine-related instances), that the occasional shortcomings in the screenplay don't affect all too negatively. The movie could go deeper, and maybe even go to more uncomfortable places. But it's so pleasureful and clear-eyed, we can't resist it. B
2 Hrs., 3 Mins.
Eat Drink Man Woman November 4, 2017
at Drink Man Woman, the title of Ang Lee's 1994 family drama, refers to the four most basic human desires. Lifted from the pages of the Book of Rites, among the Confucian classics, the needs are referred to as "the things which men greatly desire ... comprehended in meat and drink and sexual pleasure." If one of these desires is not met, or, at the very least, is not being pursued, unhappiness is inexorable.