The final flourish of Ang Lee’s “Father Knows Best” trilogy from the early 1990s, Eat Drink Man Woman is a family dramedy about a widowed master chef living in Taipei with his three grown daughters. A heady clash of personality-based differences and generational divides are served each Sunday night alongside the quiet patriarch’s lovingly and elaborately prepared feasts.
Lung Sihung portrays Chef Chu, the father (a role that he also played in the other instalments of Lee’s trilogy: Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet), who is a little overwhelmed by his headstrong daughters; he expresses his love to them by cooking multi-course meals, acting as their morning wake up call, and doing their laundry (although he usually mixes up whose clothing is whose, to their mild annoyance). He hides the fact that he is losing his sense of taste from others, relying on their facial reactions to his food to parse the quality of his cooking.
The oldest daughter, Jia-Jen (Yang Kuei-mei), is a religious school teacher with a fear of intimacy who finds herself intrigued by a new colleague, the gym coach. The middle daughter, Jia-Chien (Wu Chien-lien), is an ambitious airline exec who chafes the most against her family members and is looking for her ticket out of the house. The youngest daughter, Jia-Ning (Wang Yu-Wen), is a student and fast food employee who ends up falling into a love triangle with a boy who pines after her friend. The three women are also angling to find a companion for their father in his old age, but he has his own ideas about his future.
The title references a Confucian tenet about two basic human desires: food and sex. The film is full of memorable and mouth-watering shots of exquisite dishes being prepared and presented — steamed crab dumplings, thick-cut pork belly, burnished Peking duck, carved winter melon soup, and delicacies typically found at Chinese imperial banquets (#IYKYK) are among the many foods served at the Chu house. Eat Drink is a real love letter to the diverse cuisines and cooking methods found in China and Taiwan.
The rest of the film is devoted to the romantic entanglements of the four main characters. They navigate their individual plots without telling anyone else in the family about what is going on, signaling a disconnect between the sisters and their father after a lifetime of unspoken words and hiding their true feelings. The emotional repression on display is extremely relatable for anyone who grew up in a typical Asian household.
Eat Drink‘s core conflict is between Chu and his liberal middle daughter — she had wanted to become a master chef when she was younger but was dissuaded by her old-fashioned father. However, Jia-Chien learns to see her dad in a new light when she is confronted by the mortality of her remaining parent.
Having started the film with all the characters unattached, the family dinner table becomes the place to announce the conclusion of various characters’ relationships, some of which are truly wild, unexpected, and often hilarious (although it is somewhat unsatisfying that a lot of the juicy drama happens off-screen). Come for the food porn; stay for the outrageous romcom twists!
Eat Drink Man Woman was originally released in 1994.