Match a meal from SBS Food with a movie at SBS on Demand, for the perfect night in.
Annie Hariharan

10 Feb 2021 - 4:45 PM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2021 - 4:45 PM

Ah, the family dinner. Why is it often the setting for drama and mayhem in pop culture, from Gilmore Girls to Meet The Parents? As the trope goes, the older generation insists on getting together for a meal in the name of tradition while the younger generation does so grudgingly. Despite the delicious spread, nobody has a great time unless someone has controversial news to share. And then, hilarity ensues.

Ang Lee’s Taiwanese movie Eat Drink Man Woman is no different. The opening scene shows Chef Chu (Sihung Lung) preparing an elaborate meal for his weekly dinner with his three adult daughters who live with him. This semi-retired chef catches a live fish from a pot of water outside his house, debones it, pats it with flour and dunks it into hot oil. He effortlessly takes a long piece of glistening squid meat and makes ridges of diamond cutouts on the flesh. He catches a chicken from the pen and slaughters it. He also cuts the roasted pork belly into bite-sized chunks, washes and cooks leafy green vegetables and makes dumplings from scratch. The scene is mesmerizing and amplified by the sounds of food being prepared: clinking, pounding, sizzling, crackling, rhythmic chopping.

It’s too bad that Chu is losing his sense of taste, so there is no guarantee that the elaborate and meticulously prepared meal even taste good. That is beside the point because Chu uses these dinners to assert some control over his life and family. He is widowed, his craft is losing relevance in modern day Taiwan and nobody really needs him anymore. In a drunken stupor, he laments to his friend, Eat, drink, man, woman. Basic human desires. It pisses me off. Is that all there is to life?”

None of that really matters to his daughters  Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) and Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) who are unaware of their father’s existential crisis and refer to their weekly dinners as their weekly torture ritual. They pick at their food and mumble about how their father forgot the shrimp paste for the dumplings again.

Another reason for the simmering rage in the family is that the daughters feel stifled and want to break free. Jia-Jen, who has not recovered from a college romance, has resigned herself to being a spinster but the arrival of new workmate gives her renewed hope. Jia-Chien is a hotshot airline executive who gave up her dream of becoming a chef because her father dissuaded her. She has not forgiven him and is the one who clashes with him the most. Jia-Ning is the baby of the family but even she gets entangled in a less-than-ideal relationship.

One by one, they all use the weekly dinners to make announcements that upend their families and living arrangement. This cadence keeps the movie engaging and intriguing.  

The use of food to forward a story arc is nothing new. When done well, the food is etched into the movie scene, like the fava beans and Chianti in Silence of the Lambs or the box of chocolates in Forrest Gump. In this movie, there is no one dish that stands out. Rather, it’s the sight of an abundance of food, piled high on the dining table, which Chu claims is ‘a simple fare’.

When the movie first came out in 1994, critics and viewers described the daughters as ‘headstrong’. This hardly seems fair in year 2021, as the women are quite ordinary in their expectation for their own lives, career and romance. They simply seek to make autonomous decisions even if it seems unusual. However, when these decisions clashes with their father’s, they come across as ‘headstrong’ rather than the father coming across as unreasonable.

This is not unexpected as the movie, along with Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet, are informally known as Ang Lee’s "Father Knows Best" trilogy. A central theme for these movies is the conflict between tradition and modernity and feature ‘father figures’ who are trying to hold on to their relevance in life.  

The generational clash in Eat Drink Man Woman is clear but the tradition vs modernity clash is subtle. It’s there when Chu laments that nobody is interested in fine Taiwanese dining and it cuts to Jia-Ning working in a Wendy’s restaurant (globalisation). It’s there when Jia-Jen converts to Christianity while her family does not (religious hegemony). It’s there when Jia-Chien wants to escape from her family’s house in the ‘old’ part of Taipei and invests in a swanky condo (gentrification).

The movie is bookended by scenes of food preparation. At the start, Chu is preparing a banquet on his own. At the end, this responsibility falls on Jia-Chien while Chu insists that her soup has too much ginger. It seems like their standard bickering, but this time there is softness in their interaction. It’s the closest they will get to a compromise.

Watch Eat Drink Man Woman at SBS on Demand:

Find the recipe for Taiwanese pork on rice (lu rou fan) at SBS Food

Taiwanese pork on rice (lu rou fan)

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