“It’s Sunday torture.”
Going to church? No, it’s the weekly dinner prepared by semi-retired master chef Chu for his three daughters in this lovely 1994 Taiwanese film by Ang Lee (perhaps better known in the West for directing Sense and Sensibility, written by and starring Emma Thompson). Although the daughters still live at home, their presence is mandated each Sunday at the table, which groans with gorgeous, delicious food made by their dad.
It is through his food that the widowed Chu communicates with his daughters and expresses his love. But it’s an act of increasing desperation: Chu is losing his sense of taste, a tragedy for such a master. It’s the physical manifestation of the emotional, for his taste for life is slipping, as well. His daughters are drifting away. He knows they must, but the pull is harsh. The eldest, Jia-Jen, teaches high school and has converted to Christianity. Chu’s best friend comments that Jia-Jen has found the right man for her in Jesus, but she yearns for a physical relationship and finally meets that in a fellow teacher.
The middle sister, Jia-Chien (of the three, she most resembles her dead mother), has a high-powered job as an airline executive, and is offered a transfer to work in Amsterdam. Her ex-beau has become a friend with benefits, yet Jia-Chien knows she’s stuck. She wants to take the Amsterdam job, but hesitates to leave her father . . . and then there’s the handsome troubleshooter who’s just sauntered into the office.
The youngest daughter, Jia-Ning, is still in school. She works part-time at a Wendy’s, where she meets a co-worker’s discarded boyfriend. Jia-Ning offers sympathy. The young man responds. They discover they share many interests. But how can she, as a youngest daughter, leave her father?
Then there’s the neighbor’s mother newly returned from America, who’s got her eye on Chu as a prospective second husband. Of all the characters in this film, she’s the least sympathetic. We laugh at her, though, and wonder: is she what Chu needs to put savor into his life?
This is a family film in the best sense. Much is unsaid, much misunderstood. Connections are made, lost, and remade. The three sisters discover (as the two sisters did in Sense and Sensibility) what each lacks in her life. As one sister says (the same line was used in S&S), “What do you know of my heart?” – an excellent question, as she finds no one can know her heart if she will not reveal it. Chu rediscovers his taste and his zest for life through a remarkable and unforeseen transformation.
For foodies, this wonderful, warm film carries an added bonus: the visuals of dumpling-making, fish-steaming, the construction of layered dishes and the deconstruction of chickens that later attain divinity by being smoked. The first long segment of food preparation took a week to film and involved Chu as well as the hands of professional chefs. You will never again look at Chinese food without recalling this film’s beauty.
If you haven’t yet seen Eat Drink Man Woman, do. Those two hours will become cherished memories.