Chinese food has pivotal role in new film

August 24, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

For director Ang Lee, the connection between food and film is elemental: "It's color and texture put together with skill -- and then you're waiting for people's reactions," says Mr. Lee, whose new film, "Eat Drink Man Woman," opens Friday at the Rotunda.

There are other connections between making a movie and making a meal, Mr. Lee says: Only the cook knows how the dish is supposed to come out, and only the director knows how the film is supposed to be. And film and food are both forms of communication, the director says. In the film, "The only way the father can communicate with his daughters is to cook for them."

"Eat Drink" follows by a year Mr. Lee's "The Wedding Banquet," and is the third in a series he calls "life with father." ("Pushing Hands," less well-known, was the first.)

The second film, which was a surprise hit, also featured food, but as less of a central character. In "Banquet," a young gay man marries his female tenant to hide his sexual orientation from his parents. Things begin to go awry when the happy parents come for the wedding, and an old family friend throws a huge feast for the newlyweds.

In "Eat Drink," the central character is the most noted chef in Taipei, Taiwan, one Tao Chu, a widower with three troublesome daughters. Mr. Chu, a traditionalist, deals with his daughters' problems by cooking huge, elaborate, Sunday dinners for the whole family. For him, food is love. Unfortunately, he has lost his sense of taste, so that message, too, is garbled.

Filming a movie that is so much about food is "very time-consuming," Mr. Lee says. "There are about seven scenes that are involved with food and the table, all looking their best."

In the opening sequence, Mr. Chu is preparing a Sunday meal. He cleans fish, catches a live chicken, slices vegetables, prepares a soup, stuffs the chicken and begins simmering it.

It takes four minutes on the screen. It took eight days to shoot.

For each food scene, the dishes -- some of which were prepared in restaurants and brought in, some of which were prepared on the set -- must all arrive at their appointed places looking perfect. "The dishes must look steamy and fresh, and shiny," says Mr. Lee, who is an avid chef at home in New York.

As the food began to tire after several takes, it was replaced. Sometimes the filmmakers would go through a dozen dishes to get one scene.

Hard as it was for the chefs and food consultant and director to get all the food right, Mr. Lee says, it was terrible for the actors who had to keep pretending to eat it.

"After nine or 10 takes, everyone is going crazy," he says. "The actors get stuck in their lines." They consider it "a terrible trial," not a great pleasure, to deal with the fancy food. "It can't have a good taste if you're worried about your lines," Mr. Lee says. "It's enjoyable when we wrap, everybody crowds into the kitchen." It's like finishing a love scene, he says; everyone is tense and concentrating while the cameras roll, but afterward, they can relax.

To make sure the food was right, Mr. Lee hired three of the top chefs in Taiwan, where the film was shot, as food consultants. He found he'd hired three big egos as well. "Master chefs!" Now he can laugh. "What do you do? You bump heads, you go find a way to make it work."

"Eat Drink" is the latest in a series of movies that have offered food a starring role, and like it, most have been foreign films: "Like Water for Chocolate" (Mexican, 1993), "The Joy Luck Club" (1993), "Babette's Feast (French and Danish, 1987)," "La Grande Bouffe" (French, 1973), "Tampopo" (Japanese, 1987) and the granddaddy of all, "Tom Jones" (British, 1963), which parlayed a meal into a major event.

American films have tended to portray food in more of a supporting role: Tomato sauce in Francis Ford Coppola's

"Godfather" trilogy (1972-1990), fussy haute cuisine in "The Age of Innocence" (1993). Perhaps the closest brush with stardom comes in "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), where the plot turns not on the Southern staple of the title, but on a rather unconventional barbecue.

Mr. Lee's film is notable for its loving, lingering emphasis on the preparation of food, from Mr. Chu's home kitchen to the restaurant kitchen where he is still called in to deal with disasters, to the kitchen of his middle daughter's former boyfriend as she prepares a meal for him.

The actors -- Sihung Lung as Mr. Chu and Chien-Lein Wu as the middle daughter, Jai-Chien -- perform some simple cooking tasks, such as dropping ingredients into pots and putting cooked items on plates, under the coaching of food consultant Lin Huei-Yi. But the hands at work in the preparation shots belong to pros.

The choreography of getting all the preparation shots of actors and chefs' hands and getting all the dishes in the right stages to the right places took considerable planning, Mr. Lee says. "You really have to do food charts," he says. "It's like launching a rocket."

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