MGM // 1994 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dezhda Mountz (Retired) // March 25th, 2002
The ingredients of life.
Ang Lee's third movie dealing with complex family issues furthered his reputation as a talented filmmaker. The story about a retired master chef struggling to keep his family together within stringent traditional boundaries of Taiwanese society earned Lee a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (and was also the basis for Tortilla Soup). He then won over mainstream audiences with films The Ice Storm, Sense And Sensibility, and, of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Retired master chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is trying to keep his three daughters at home and happy, but it's tricky in a modern world. The temptations of success and romance threaten to lure them out of their family home, haunted by pictures of their late mother. As loved ones leave and re-enter Chu's life, he has to find his own happiness.
Eat Drink Man Woman immediately grabs you with its food. From the first frame, the preparation of food dominates the film's aesthetic. From roasted duck to mummified chicken, the film takes the audience on a journey through the most sensational of Eastern cooking.
It seems Chu can only express himself in the kitchen, making for strained Sunday dinners with his daughters. Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is a near-virginal schoolteacher who remains devoted to her father, at a loss for any other male figure in her life. Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest sister, is a part-time burger flipper and full-time free spirit. Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) is a successful businesswoman. Her announcement early on that she is moving out sets off a maelstrom of change.
The daughters defy their father's expectations with illicit romance and impulse decisions. Chu has occasional restaurant work to distract him, helping his friend Old Wen (Jui Wang) in the kitchen they used to run together. But Chu also has a romantic life of his own, and this announcement makes for a surprising climax to the film.
Jia-Chen maintains much of the focus over the other two sisters, and her story highlights the change many traditional Eastern families undergo. The lure of money and success at the expense of true joys and family conflict her, and Chien-lien Wa does a good job of reflecting this conflict in every expression. However, just as Taiwanese culture demands restraint versus Western society, the same can be said for the acting. Nuanced and understated, you won't see a lot of emoting here. It would have been nice to see a bit more feeling in the performances, but at the same time the actors are embodying the culture they represent.
As conflicts bubble underneath the surface of every character, the food takes over. The real passion, the spark of life, takes place in the kitchen. Whereas the acting is somewhat stoic, the cooking scenes are passionate and colorful. Lee's feeling of movement and bon vivant perspective makes this movie almost too big for the small screen, but its soap-operatic subject matter suits home viewing just fine.
The cinematography of those kitchen scenes highlights the true colors of the film, but the transfer to DVD is not quite true to the production quality of Eat Drink Man Woman. There was a bit of buzz in some darks, but overall the clear was true with no grain or dirt evident. Contrast between lights and darks was a bit fuzzy, not doing justice to the fine cinematography. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation mimics the original theatrical presentation and works nicely on home TV screens.
The Dolby Stereo Surround sound was fine, but there's aren't any bells and whistles with this one. The mix was even, well-blended, with nice use of the front and center speakers. For a fine art movie, that's about all you need. You have the option of English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
For extra features we're given two theatrical trailers, including the "teaser trailer" that looked and sounded like a 4th grader put it together -- complete with grain, bad sound, and poorly shot stills instead of snippets of the film. The full-length trailer was much more satisfying.
The only other extra is an interview with Ang Lee and co-writer/producer James Schamus. This extra is a substantial interview with both men. It's fascinating, taking us into Lee's perspective on food, Taipei culture, and how both reflect on and complement each other. Lee also discusses a bit of his early days as a filmmaker, staying at home while his wife worked, writing his film ideas, and doing most of the cooking. This explains his desire to film a movie about...well, lots o' food.
This disc is a bit weak on extras, and the transfer could have been a bit sweeter. Otherwise, the movie's themes and story will still make your mouth water, and Ang Lee's introspective interview is a treat for all movie buffs.
Sentenced to two weeks' of chef duty at the local prison and assigned to cook up a better DVD -- then free to report back to the head chef!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Mandarin)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Two Theatrical Trailers
* Interview with Director Ang Lee and Co-Writer/Producer James Schamus