I’ve been meaning to catch up with Ang Lee’s first three movies for years now, and I’ve finally watched the third of the three. It does feel slightly less polished than his later films, but it’s also already a very accomplished and moving film in its own right. It’s set in Lee’s hometown, Taipei, and it’s about a widower who has three adult daughters living with him. He’s a chef at a local restaurant, and the movie is full of delicious-looking Chinese food. It mixes comedy and melodrama, and above all it treats Lee’s obsession with repressed emotion, which is what has always made him one of my favorite directors.
I loved the unexpected twists of the plot, and the way that the twists happen suddenly in what is otherwise a deliberately paced movie. It creates an almost slapstick feel to some serious developments. There are a few points where the difficulties the characters have communicating with each other are too poignant for their own good, but I also liked how succeeding revelations undercut earlier poignant bits, for example in the story of the older sister’s long-ago lost love. I also liked how the innocent younger sister ended up being the manipulative one, whether she is conscious of it or not.
The middle sister is played by Wu Chien-lien — a beautiful Taiwanese actress who had an interesting, if relatively brief, career in pre-handover Hong Kong, although somehow I haven’t seen any of those films. Her character ends up being the most complicated one in this movie, although maybe that’s only because she is the only one left hanging in mid-air. But no, she really gets more development than the other two, and although she’s introduced as the resentful one who is willing to criticize the father (played by Lung Sihung, who I recognized from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) she ends up being the bridge between all the family members. The one frustrating thing to me was that the film sets up the fact that she’s a great chef herself, but doesn’t do anything with it. Or maybe it just doesn’t spoon feed what is obvious. The very final scene involves a dish that she has cooked for her father, and maybe the effect it has on him tells us everything we need to know.
Well, really a delightful film, which I remember reading about when it came out. I didn’t see any of Lee’s films until The Ice Storm (1997), but since then the only one of his I haven’t seen is Brokeback Mountain (2005), which came out at a time when I just couldn’t bear the thought of watching a tragic romance (usually one of my favorite genres). Something sweet and forgiving and only slightly melancholy like Eat Drink Man Woman might have been just what the doctor ordered in those days.