Food and the family


Eat Drink Man Woman
Directed by Ang Lee
Mandarin with English subtitles
To be released nationally on December 22
Screening in Sydney at the Pitt Centre, Cremorne Orpheum and Stanmore Cinema
Reviewed by Peter Boyle

There have been quite a few memorable films about food — Babette's Feast, Tampopo and Like Water for Chocolate — and now there's Eat Drink Man Woman from the director of The Wedding Banquet. But while watching the most fantastic food in cinematic splendour can get the mouth watering and even the stomach growling, it is no match for scoffing the stuff. And unless you are the sort of person who likes being tantalised for two hours, a good food movie has to make a point.

Eat Drink Man Woman has a point. It is about how some families use the eating ritual as a substitute for communication — especially on the subject of sex. The Chu family does this on a grand scale.

Mr Chu is a master chef and widower who has brought up three daughters by himself. The three daughters are adults but still live at home. There is not much verbal communication in the family, but dad expresses his love by cooking up a storm for the family — chi-ling fish, steamed deer in a pumpkin pot, lotus flower soup, etc. But at sumptuous family dinner after sumptuous family dinner, no-one seems to be very much in the mood for eating.

Sunday night is the time for the "Sunday dinner torture ritual", explains one of the daughters. Endlessly, discussing, preparing, serving, eating and cleaning up substitute for talk that urgently needs to be had.

There's a lot of repressed emotion dying to explode in the Chu household, and eventually it does at one of these Sunday rituals. "I have a small announcement ...", begins the youngest daughter, clearing her throat before she drops her bombshell: she's moving out with her best friend's former boyfriend, who has got her pregnant. As in a string of firecrackers, the first explosion triggers off others. Even dad has a surprise.

This film takes on a tricky topic and handles it with gentle comedy — perhaps too subtle to make Eat Drink Man Woman as successful as The Wedding Banquet. This is also the first film New York-based Ang Lee has shot in Taiwan, and there are a few scenes that suggest (but do not explore) a connection between emotional repression in the family and the militarisation of society.

A warning to foody types: this is a film about emotional repression and so, unlike many other food movies, the amazing preparation scenes (all genuinely done by three world-class chefs) don't lead to a satisfying consummation. Mr Chu is a master chef, but he has lost his taste, and the audience is made to share his frustration.

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