I grew up near Main Street in Flushing, Queens, which today is considered New York City’s second Chinatown. You can find authentic Chinese (as well as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) cuisine in the many restaurants up and down Main Street and its side streets. You can also get the Americanized dishes found at most Asian restaurants in this country. If you’re not of Asian descent, the wait staff will likely present you with their Americanized menu.
We had a friend from Hong Kong who would meet up with us on Main Street and order the most amazing meals from the authentic cuisine menus—heck, they were really banquets. The food was made with incredibly fresh ingredients. One time, at a nearby table, we witnessed the staff bring out a ginormous live crab for the guests to inspect and approve one-by-one before it was cooked.
Memories of these meals is one reason I adore Ang Lee’s film, Eat Drink Man Woman. Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) is considered the greatest chef in Taipei, Taiwan. Every Sunday, he cooks by himself an elaborate banquet for his three grown daughters. Everything is made from scratch. He even uses chickens he raises in his own backyard (this is the middle of a big city). The presentation of the food is meticulous. Just watching him cook and seeing the results make my mouth water every time I watch the movie.
His three daughters, on the other hand, see the Sunday meal as a trial. All still live at home with their widowed father—Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), who is a school teacher and a born-again Christian, Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), a successful airline executive, and Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), a student who works at, of all things, a Wendy’s restaurant.
While the food looks sumptuous, the daughters usually complain that it tastes a little off. Mr. Chu has lost his sense of taste as he has aged, and relies on his friend Old Wen (Jui Wang) to make certain the food passes muster at the restaurant where he works.
At each meal depicted in the film, someone at the table makes a life-changing announcement that reverberates through the family.
Like Ang Lee’s previous film The Wedding Banquet (which also featured Sihung Lung, as well as a couple of other actors in this film) the main theme is the evolution from tradition to modernity in the Chinese family. No one in the Chu family wants to sit through these meals (I want to cry when I see how much is left unconsumed), and it seems Mr. Chu doesn’t want much to make them, either. But it’s a tradition, and one that won’t end unless the family scatters.
It’s tradition that keeps his daughters—all of whom chafe to leave and find their own lives—tied to their father. They assume one of them at least will be tasked with taking care of him until he dies. Even though they all live in the same house and eat at the same table, they could be four strangers, with their own secrets and plans and dreams the others are unaware of until one makes an announcement at the Sunday meal.
The film focuses mainly on the middle daughter, Jia-Chien, who seems the most likely to make her own life. As good a cook as her father, she resents that he insisted she finish her studies instead of becoming a chef. Her attempts to escape from her father’s house are met with disaster—she loses all her savings when she buys an apartment in a building that turns out to be on top of a toxic waste dump. Her romantic life is also a disaster. Her relationship with her elder sister is very cold. When she sees her father at the hospital having some tests, she assumes his desire to retire from the restaurant has to do with poor health and she must resign herself to taking care of him.
The meals that the daughters dread so much turn out to change the lives of each of them in profound ways. Fate and other factors intervene to change the paths they have set out for themselves.
There’s something a little sad about the way this family slowly relinquishes tradition and obligation as it catches up with the times. But there’s also joy and humor as each main character finds their place in life.
It’s a lovely film. Just make sure you’re not hungry when you watch it.