Eat Drink Man Woman is the third film in the loose trilogy of features that form the first stage in Ang Lee’s directorial career. Although made in Taiwan and presented in Mandarin, it feels like a ‘transnational film’, a traditional Chinese (family) melodrama filtered through an American sense of international cinema. It’s co-scripted by Lee’s long-time contributor James Schamus and Taiwanese writer Wang Hui-Ling (who would go to script Lee’s other Chinese films). I can’t quite put my finger on why this Taiwanese film might have faint American feel – other than Lee and Schamus sharing time together in the US. Immediately after this production Lee directed his first English language film and tackled an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – not perhaps an enormous leap from a Taiwanese family drama.
There is a useful overview of Ang Lee’s early career by David Minnihan on Senses of Cinema in its ‘Great Directors’ section. He discusses Lee’s move to the US for his education and his subsequent early production career. Minnihan takes an auteurist approach in which he sees Lee’s early work, especially the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy of Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) as an expression of Lee’s difficult relationship with his own father. The same actor, Lung Sihung, plays the father in each of these otherwise unrelated family comedy-dramas (as IMDb lists them). Each of the three is a Taiwan-US production. I haven’t seen the first two films but they both appear to deal with Taiwanese migrants in the US. Coming at Eat Drink Man Woman from a slightly different angle my first question concerns Lee’s Taiwanese background and why he doesn’t seem to be more closely concerned with the work of the Taiwanese directors who comprised the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ (NTC) of the 1980s. Lee was born in 1954 making him around seven years younger than the two most prominent directors of NTC, Hou Hsaio-Hsen and Edward Yang. Lee would have been in America finishing his Film MA when Hou and Yang began making their first NTC films. He wouldn’t make his own Taiwan-set film until Eat Drink Man Woman and he was surprised at the changes in Taipei when he returned. In some ways, Eat Drink Man Woman is similar to Yang’s masterpeice Yi Yi (Taiwan-Japan 2000) but Lee had not spent twenty years exploring the social history of Taiwan since 1945 like Hou and Yang.
The family at the centre of the film comprises the father on the brink of retirement and his three grown-up daughters. Father is the joint top chef of a prestigious restaurant. He has a well-equipped kitchen at home with everything he needs to create a feast and every Sunday he cooks an enormously elaborate meal which has become the setting for the weekly family meeting. Important announcements will be made at this meal but much of the time the four family members don’t really communicate. Lee spends a great deal of time (and expense) showing the father making such a lunch and I was pained to see how little of it was actually eaten. A similar amount of care goes into a long tracking shot which follows the chef through the restaurant and into the kitchens when he is summoned in an emergency. It’s tempting to see this as Lee trying out the kind of long-take style demonstrated via a similar shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (US 1990). Something similar, though in a very different location, occurs in the large high school where the eldest daughter teaches. The camera follows the teacher down the open walkways around the large playground where volleyball is being played. This combines a long shot and long take approach. Lee also employs a long shot of a Taipei crossroads with heavy traffic much like a ‘pillow shot’ in an Ozu film.
The eldest daughter is introduced as a kind of ‘old maid’ character who was jilted by a lover at university and has now converted to Christianity and adopted a subdued approach to life. The middle daughter is in some ways the key character. In Minnihan’s terms she is the character who embodies Lee’s own feelings. As a teenager she had shown the most interest in cooking and wanted to be a chef or a restaurateur only to be discouraged by her father and urged to continue her education. Now she is the high-flyer, working for an airline in a senior position and wondering whether to stay in Taiwan or work abroad. The youngest daughter (whose story seems to get the least attention) works in a fast-food outlet and is seeking her independence. Her father seems less concerned about her ‘challenge’ to his love of fine cooking.
Each of the family members has a story and the narrative moves between the four stories, bringing them together at the Sunday meal. As I’ve indicated, the main story for me is that of daughter No 2 played by Wu Chien-Lien. There are also other significant characters like the other top chef ‘Old Wen’ whose actions provide a contrast (or a warning?) for the father. I did find the introduction of another set of characters quite confusing. I think these are ‘returnees’ from a previous migration and a failed marriage who are invited to stay in the family house. Lian Jin-Rong and her mother knew the chef’s family when Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) was a girl who played with the three daughters. Now she has a child of her own and needs to re-start her life. Her predicament and that of her mother has a bearing on what will happen to the father/chef in perhaps surprising ways.
My overall view is that Eat Drink Man Woman is a carefully scripted, very well-acted film narrative skilfully constructed by Ang Lee and his crew. I watched it on my TV via MUBI in two or three parts which isn’t ideal and therefore I’m not sure if I’m being fair in suggesting that the film doesn’t in the end ‘lift off’ to become something really distinctive and that’s perhaps what suggests a kind of ‘internationalism’ about it – as if it doesn’t quite have the confidence to be a ‘contemporary Taiwanese’ story. It explores migration, education and other familiar issues but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like other Taiwanese films I’ve watched. I’ve tended to think that Ang Lee’s best films have been based on acclaimed novels/short stories, e.g. The Life of Pi or Brokeback Mountain. On the other hand it could be that there are too many central characters and not enough time to explore them all in detail? In a family melodrama like this the central conflict needs a strong focus and here the youngest daughter seems like a peripheral character. Even so, I feel like I’ve learned more about Ang Lee’s work and I’m primed to watch some other Taiwanese melodramas in my unwatched piles of DVDs.
The Life of Pi is an interesting phenomenon in contemporary cinema. I watched it in 3D from the front row of a small cinema – not necessarily the seat I would have chosen (I usually go for the third or fourth row) and the sensation of animals jumping into my lap was definitely odd. I can’t decide if the overall film was just an enjoyable traveller’s tale or whether there is a more profound narrative that I wasn’t reading properly. What is clear is that the film has captivated audiences around the world and set the electronic bulletin boards aglow with questions, theories and seemingly whole packs of ‘trolls’. Like Scorsese’s Hugo, this 3D presentation by a filmmaker with great skill in visualising a story and carefully handling his characters has gone some way to justifying this still cumbersome technology.
When Yann Martel’s original novel won the Booker Prize, I remember being put off reading it by the usual nonsense that surrounds awards ceremonies. I’m usually interested in Canadian literature but I didn’t explore this title further. If you don’t know the story, it begins in Montreal where a novelist visits Pi (Irrfan Khan) looking for inspiration for his next project. Pi tells him the fabulous tale of how many years earlier he survived months drifting across the Pacific in an open boat accompanied by a fully-grown Bengal tiger. The narrative mainly comprises a long flashback to when Pi was first a small child in Pondicherry, the French enclave in Tamil Nadu which finally joined the Union of India in 1954, and up to the disaster when Pi was trapped with the tiger as a 16 year-old. Pi’s father owned a zoo in Pondicherry but changes in his financial circumstances forced him to sell-up and take his family to Canada – along with some of the animals which he hoped to sell in North America. At the end of the fabulous tale, the novelist learns that there is another, alternative story about what happened to Pi in the boat and he is invited to choose which one he believes.
For those of us who don’t profess any religious beliefs, the film might seem a little off-putting since the novelist is told that the story will make him think again about the existence of God. Yann Martel is certainly interested in ideas about religions and he travelled to India partly to see temples, mosques and churches. As a 14 year-old, Pi tries out Hinduism, Islam and Christianity in his attempt to understand the world. Especially in North America, audiences (and critics) seem to want to focus on the religious dimension. For those of us in the increasingly secular UK (shown in the 2011 census) I suppose it’s good to be reminded that millions of people around the world do have religious beliefs. However, I don’t think that Life of Pi has to be understood through religious metaphors and allegories. It’s a mixture of fantasy and realism that exposes the central character’s humanity.
What’s most interesting about the film for me is that a Hollywood studio (Fox) thought that it had acquired a ‘property’ to develop into an American blockbuster movie only to discover eventually that while the film remains ‘American’ in terms of its script by David Magee and the excellent CGI effects work by Rhythm and Hues, everything else about the film is truly ‘international’. The proof is in the box office. Released first in North America, the film made $88 million in what Hollywood calls the ‘domestic’ market – making it a ‘flop’ given its budget of over $100 million. But in the ‘international’ market (i.e. the rest of the world) it has already made over $220 million with the Chinese and Indian markets together making over $100 million. That has to mean something.
The film is visually spectacular without the need for much dialogue in many scenes and its story is ‘universal’, but much of the credit must go to director Ang Lee and his refusal to use Hollywood/Bollywood superstars – Tobey Maguire and Shah Rukh Khan are reported to have been considered at some point. Irrfan Khan and Tabu represent the cream of Indian acting talent (note to self – must find more Tabu films) and Gérard Depardieu makes a suitable villain – hiss! – in the present climate (he’s a tax dodger). I thought Suraj Sharma, the 17 year-old student who played the lead, was terrific. Lee made the film in Taiwan, India and Canada and it doesn’t at any point feel like an American film. It was worth staying to the end of the credits to hear the golden voice of Lata Mangeshkar on a song which I think comes from a 1970s Hindi film.
I’d like to watch the film again – on a bigger screen – and really get to grips with what Lee and his crew have been able to put together. There is a sequence in which the aspect ratio changes. The action at that moment was itself spectacular so I barely registered the change in ratio. Later I read that there are four different ratios used in the film at various times. In the opening credits sequence, the credits themselves are animated and the 3D effect is pronounced as animals move through the depth of the image. I found this very beautiful and quite arresting – although at other times I didn’t notice the use of 3D at all (apart from the darkened image and the heaviness of the glasses over my own specs). The other success is of course the digital effects that create the tiger on the boat. I can’t imagine that there are many cat lovers (or even dog lovers) that didn’t experience an emotional jolt when Pi lifts the massive head of the tiger weakened by hunger onto his lap. I felt the weight of a ‘real’ tiger and wanted to stretch out and scratch its ears.
To return to the India/China axis, Life of Pi seems like a breakthrough of sorts. I don’t think that it was just the presence of Irrfan Khan and Tabu that made me think of The Namesake, a film by Mira Nair, an Indian based in the US adapting another tale of a journey from India to North America. Ang Lee has already demonstrated his ability to make films about different modes of American culture as well as a British literary adaptation and explorations of his own Taiwanese film culture. He’s moved between very different genres and very different cultural contexts with ease. Perhaps with Life of Pi he’s begun to point towards the greater exchange of ideas about cinema between India, China and North America. I think that is where the future lies for cinema in global terms and Lee seems much more adept than the more conventional Hollywood forays into separate productions in India and China.