Love is served on a familiar platter -- 'Eat Drink' to your heart's content

August 26, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Eat Drink Man Woman," which opens today at the Rotunda, is fine moving funny good.

A brilliant film from the Chinese-American filmmaker Ang Lee (who did "A Wedding Banquet," which moved me not a whit), it's a kind of "King Lear" of the kitchen. It follows the greatest Chinese chef on Taipei as he comes to terms with the romantic fates of his three very different daughters. For their part, they must come to terms with the old goat who's been running their lives for three decades.

Lee films cooking as if it's war. Master chef Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) races through the inferno of the kitchen like Patton enjoying a ride on a Sherman tank through a burning German city, his face radiant with bliss. He's the master of the chaos, who can save dishes that others have mangled with stupidity or improper ingredients; in his hands utensils take on a magic dance of life. He probably could make chicken salad out of chicken whatever, or a dish called Silk Purse out of a sow's ear. But most of all he just knows what to do, from years and years of experience.

Now semi-retired from the hotel restaurant where he worked so famously, he has time on his hands and a dad's black mischief in his heart. His need to dominate, as he did in the kitchen, quite naturally extends to his private life. Naturally, his three daughters hate it. They are obligated to show each Sunday for one of his elaborate feasts. Lovingly, since food is the only vessel of his affection, he brings dish after dish out of the kitchen: delicate, beautiful works of art that also happen to be food. And the three young women just stare at them impassively. The generations stand a gulf apart; nothing seems to exist to unite them.

Of course, the true subtext of "Eat Drink Man Woman" isn't food but love. As we discover them, each is thwarted. The family is DTC one big knot of frustration. The brightest of the three young women, Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu) sleeps occasionally with her ex-husband, but generally lives a loveless life as a high-powered airline executive. Oldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) lives in forlorn isolation, teaching chemistry in a military school and mourning deeply the loss of a long-ago boyfriend. The youngest, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) casually unleashes the deepest insult: she goes to work in a fast-food restaurant, selling plastic-wrapped hamburgers to a generation intent on forgetting its heritage.

All of this may seem exotic to an American audience. But it only takes a second for the sense of strangeness to dissipate, and "Eat Drink Man Woman" settles down to become a rip-roaring comic family melodrama, a plot-twist-o-rama that's full of revelations and adventures. It's especially familiar ground to any dad saddled with a daughter growing away from him and toward independent womanhood (ouch!).

Each of the young women meets a young man; these three relationships unroll in counterpoint to each other, and in slightly different modes: One is a charming kind of pick-me-up (the fast food daughter falls for the boyfriend her pal has just dumped and then wants back); another plays in a tone of goofiness (the chemistry teacher is wooed by a hulking, not too bright but very decent gym teacher); and, most wittily, the airline exec becomes involved with another airline exec.

Lee has a real feel for the delicacy of human relationships; he gets colors into "Eat Drink Man Woman" that are routinely absent from the more bombastic Hollywood film, degrees of sadness and regret. But he's also a great plotter: This film is stunningly involving, and it just races along from revelation to revelation. The best of the latter involves Mr. Chu himself. For so long, the picture sees him as a grim overseer only happy amid the flames and steam of the kitchen, but the film builds neatly to a great surprise: The old dog has a few tricks left that can surprise even his daughters.

By the end of the movie it's all gone: that is, the house where they lived, the lives that they lived. But the loss isn't the loss of destruction, it's the loss of change. They've gone from one life to others, eager and bright with possibility. In a movie that takes its title from the most primitive of appetites, the final course is the most essential of all: love.

'Eat Drink Man Woman'

Starring Sihung Lung and Yu-Wen Wang

Directed by Ang Lee

Released by Samuel Goldwyn

Unrated

*** 1/2

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