Ang Lee’s breakthrough film Eat Drink Man Woman plays on Turner Classic Movies as part of the TCM Imports series. I write about the drama, the story of a master chef and widowed father with three grown daughters, for the TCM website:
Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee’s third feature, was his first to be shot and set in his homeland. Determined to establish himself as a Chinese filmmaker, Lee returned to the city of Taipei, where he grew up, and he drew from his own experiences. As a struggling filmmaker just out of college, Lee kept the family home and cooked the meals while his wife worked full time and he wrote scripts and pitched projects, trying to get his first feature produced. The idea of food as something to be shared is very Chinese, according to Lee. It became a natural focus for his story: food as a way of communication, as a social and familial experience. “The food and the banquet in the movie has really become a ritual,” explained Lee in an interview. In this film, it often replaces communication.
Food is also central to Chu’s identity. Unbeknownst to all except his closest friend and fellow chef Wen (affectionately known as Uncle Wen by Chu’s daughters), he is losing his sense of taste. He has a lifetime of recipes and a passion for cooking, but like a painter going blind or a musician losing his hearing, he’s an artist losing command of the sense that defines him. It’s an obvious metaphor for aging and losing control, but in the hands of Lee it’s more than just a symbol. Called from his family by Wen to save a culinary disaster at the restaurant, Chu arrives intent and confident and completely in his element, like a surgeon coming in to perform an emergency operation. As he steps in to the restaurant and snakes through the kitchen counters with laser-like focus, he’s dressed in the chef’s answer to surgical scrubs by one man and handed his glasses by another as all gather round to hear his assessment of the crisis and await his solution and instructions. This is the one area of life in which he still has control, yet he must rely on Wen to gauge his success when he whips up a last-minute entrée to replace a shark fin fiasco. All the cooking theory in the world is just that when faced with the results of real food on the human tongue.
Read the complete feature here. The film plays on TCM on September 28 and is available on DVD.