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This weekend, the Metrograph theater in New York City’s Lower East Side will be screening "Food-on-Film: A Weekend with Alton Brown," featuring six of Food52 friend Alton Brown’s favorite food films. They’re all classics, and readily available. We’ll be running short essays throughout the week on each one. Check out the previous entries here.
Though Chu (Sihung Lung) is the greatest chef in Taipei, he’s beginning to lose his basic faculties. Time has wearied Chu’s tastebuds; he’s prone, for example, to overestimating the need for ginger in certain dishes, all to the gastronomic terror of his daughters: One charitably describes their weekly shared meal as the “Sunday dinner torture ritual.”
Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) has long been regarded as a classic "foodie film," in part due to the way it demonstrates food as a leveler between generations. It is, too, the film largely responsible for thrusting Lee's vivid, observant directorial eye onto the world (he would gain an Oscar nomination for this film, and he would follow it with a thematically wayward filmography filled with English-language adaptations of Jane Austen and Larry McMurtry novels).
Chu is the widower of a family consisting of three adult-aged daughters who have not quite shirked the training wheels of adolescence. They all live at home, partly out of their fathers’ obsequious desire to keep them under his roof. As his daughters have aged, though, his pulse on them has weakened, and they’ve grown cosseted and distant as a result. Food, once the connective tissue between these two disparate generations, has lost its potency as the great domestic leveler it once was.
Chu needs a vessel for these reserves of affection he no longer has an outlet for in his daughters. He instead finds the surrogate for this doting in Shan-Shan (Yu-Chien Tang), the elementary-aged daughter of a close family friend (Sylvia Chang) who happens to be a single mother. About thirty minutes into the film, Chu, during a morning jog, comes upon Shan-Shan clad in her school uniform, eating one of his dumplings for breakfast at the bus stop. He offers to have her come over for lunch. She responds by saying that she can’t leave school for lunch before hurriedly boarding the bus, dissolving into a crowd of adults much larger than her. Chu grows sullen; the look in his eyes is one of quiet desperation, as if Shan-Shan, too, like his daughters, has outgrown him faster than he’s been able to process.
He wants to remedy this feeling of helplessness. Scenes later, we see him prepare an elaborate meal for her. He wanders the hallways of her school and makes his way into her classroom. "I didn't have much time to make you more than a few small dishes," he warns, unloading stainless steel pots of spare ribs; crabs with vegetables; shrimp with green peas, bean sprouts, and sliced chicken; and bitter melon soup. The odor of the food summons her classmates en masse to her desk, and they look upon it with great delight and wonder.
Lee has increasingly begun to chase scale—Life of Pi (2012) was a real elephant of a movie, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016) is a 3D experiment that critics pummeled at this year's New York Film Festival—and, in the midst of these ambitions, sacrificed some of his virtues as a filmmaker, namely his more delicate insights into human behavior. Eat Drink Man Woman demonstrates him working at the top of his game. Alton Brown is right to single out Lung’s performance as the film’s main draw. In Eat Drink Man Woman, it’s Lung's bleary-eyed face I remember; he seems to regain purpose in this moment when he brings Shan-Shan a great feast masquerading as a school lunch. Anticipating the film’s denouement, he looks upon Shan-Shan as he would his own daughter with a feeling he hasn’t known in years—he will do anything to make her happy.
What's your favorite scene from Eat Drink Man Woman? Let us know in the comments!