EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN *** 1/4
Judging from this movie and his previous one ( "The Wedding Banquet"), we can conclude three things about filmmaker Ang Lee. One, he has talent. Two, he can please public and critics alike. Three, he has a thing about food, and not only celebrates it but uses it as an Ariadne's thread for exploring feelings and relationships. We are in the general territory of "Babette's Feast" and "Like Water for Chocolate" but with full originality.
The title of Ang Lee's new picture is explained in the film as the basic desires of humans, but they are desires that go beyond instant gratification. Food is a fine art and sex is more than, well...sex.
Widower Mr. Chu is Taipei's premier chef, a cook's cook, a Ph.D. (phood doctor) who concocts culinary marvels and solves the problems of other chefs in times of crisis. The sequence of his coming to the rescue of a mammoth banquet has something of the monumentality of "Triumph of the Will" or "The Last Emperor."
Mr. Chu lives with his three unmarried daughters. Jia-Jen, the oldest, is a spinster schoolteacher and the only Christian in the family. (The others do not appear to be particularly religious). Jia-Chen, the beautiful middle one, is a hotshot airline executive. Jia-Ning, the junior, works at a Wendy's -- a marked contrast to Mr. Chu's high class cuisine, which, he deplores, is getting lost.
The movie opens with a lengthy, masterful, silent montage sequence of Mr. Chu preparing a hugely complicated meal. (Vegetarians viewers may wish to close their eyes a couple of times). This is the traditional Sunday family meal, one that has become a chore for the daughters and is an occasion for them to deliver major announcements. Variously, too, they criticize some finer points of Mr. Chu's cuisine. Mr. Chu blames this on his having lost his taste buds, and, indeed, outside the home, he relies on the tasting of his old friend and colleague Mr. Wen.
Mr. Chu counters his problems of taste buds, loneliness and a subtle breakdown in communications with his daughters, by concocting delicious school lunches for the little girl of Jin Rong, his neighbor who is waiting for her divorce.
The Chu sisters are evolving beyond the bonds of tradition. Each one has her lifestyle and each one undergoes a sea-change - but to boil down the situations as modernism vs. tradition would be simplistic.
The youngest falls in love with the boyfriend of her best friend at Wendy's. The oldest meets the new volleyball coach. The ambitious middle one, who is also a gifted cook, periodically sleeps with her ex and starts a tentative affair with a handsome married executive.
The ramifications in the plot of "Eat" are as deliciously intricate as those of Mr. Chu's menus, so complex indeed that the movie, though long and always interesting, still lacks enough time to clarify several points, get into some of the characters in depth or tidy up so loose ends. But these are secondary objections.
Much of the story is like a soap opera, or should I say a soup opera. But unlike soaps or melodramas, it has a rather charming aloofness, a kind of delicate attitude that seems to mistrust Hollywoodian or European histrionics and emoting. With discreet humor and no traces of fanfare or grandiloquence, the film conveys beautifully the difficulties of being oneself and of being part of a family.
All this is deftly spiced up with original scenes, clever one-liners that are not underlined, and quietly prepared twists that result in surprises which, even when predictable, keep their freshness. And this good script and acting are very well served by top production values, cinematography and un-showy, unpersistent editing.
There is plenty of piquant irony in "Eat," as when Jian-Chen's ex (husband or lover? it is not clear) announces to her that he will marry, yet expresses the hope that he and Jian-Chen can go on being friends, i.e. keep sleeping together. Pigs are found outside kitchens too.
The film waves in and out of kitchens. Lovers of Chinese food will drool. And everyone will wonder how, with all this eating, the Chinese stay so svelte.
In 1972 the old master Luis Bunuel made a film, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," a surrealist, sarcastic satire about people whose eating got invariably interrupted. That picture had fangs. Ang Lee's comedy is affectionate and gentle, but it could also be called "The Discreet Charm of the Taiwanese Bourgeoisie."