Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu)


In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

In China, the dinner table is a wonderful, terrible place.

(1994) Dramedy (Goldwyn) Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, Sylvia Chang, Winston Chao, Chao-jung Chen, Chit-Man Chan, Yu Chen, Ya-Lei Kuei, Chi-Der Hong, Gin-Ming Hsu, Huei-Yi Lin, Shih-Jay Lin, Chin-Cheng Lu, Cho-Gin Nei, Yu-Chien Tang, Chung Ting, Cheng-Fen Tso, Man-Sheng Tu, Chuen Wang, Shui Wang, Hwa Tu, Michael Taylor. Directed by Ang Lee

Films For Foodies

One of my favorite cuisines is Chinese. Done well (which is sadly rare where I live) it is flavorful, fresh and filling. Cuisine is in many ways a reflection of the philosophy of life of the originating culture. China is simple on the surface but very complex the further you delve into it. The same can be said about families, not just in China but in all cultures.

Chu (Lung) is an old school chef, once one of the most honored in Taipei. He is semi-retired now, living with his three adult unmarried daughters. His wife passed away some years back and he is lonely even in a house full of girls. They have modern sensibilities which puzzle him. There was a time when a father’s word was absolute but those days are gone.

Jia-Jen (Yang) is his eldest. Nine years previously, her heart was broken by a suitor who abandoned her. She eventually converted to Christianity with all the fervor of a convert which has caused some friction in the household. She works as a school nurse and has given up on love – until a volleyball coach (Hsu) begins to pay attention to her.

Jia-Chien (Wu) works for an airline as an executive and is fiercely independent, guarding that independence like a mama bear with a cub. She had once wanted nothing more than to follow in her father’s footsteps but in Chinese society women were not chefs – only at home did they ever cook. She sometimes meets up with Raymond (Chan), an old lover with privileges.

Jia-Ning (Y-W. Wang), the youngest, works at a fast-food joint and begins a relationship with Guo Lun (Chen) who has an on-again, off-again relationship with Jia-Ning’s fickle friend whose flightiness is beginning to wear on Guo Lun.

 

On Sundays, Chu prepares an extraordinary meal for all three of his daughters. At table, they share news of each other’s lives and sometimes drop announcements on the family of varying degrees of earth-shattering capability. Chu is being courted by Mrs. Liang (Kuei), the widowed mother of single mom Jin-Rong (Chang) who is almost like a fourth daughter. Mrs. Liang is always accompanied by a billowing cloud of cigarette smoke which brings out the Dragon Lady stereotypes but makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the fragrant clouds of steam that rise from Chu’s gastronomic creations.

There are elements of farce here, as well as soap opera qualities. Each daughter represents a different daughterly virtue in Chinese culture, and each one has her own secret. Chu is not especially pleased with retirement; it doesn’t take much convincing to send him scurrying to his old restaurant to assist Uncle Wen (Wang), an old family friend – and yet he seems to take much more satisfaction from the meals he prepares for his girls, even though they don’t seem to appreciate it much.

Lee spends a great deal of time focusing on the food and its preparation – the entire first scene is essentially a how-to on how Chu prepares one of his epic Sunday dinners. You will be craving Chinese food by the time the first scene is over; you’ll be needing it like a junkie needs heroin by the time the movie is complete. Food is important in Chinese culture and Lee gives it the kind of reverence and due that the French accord a great meal.

 

I like Lung’s performance very much; he sometimes comes off as clueless but one gets the sense that he knows a lot more than what those around him give him credit for (and in the movie’s climax he proves that point beyond a shadow of a doubt). His relationships with his daughters, Wen and Madame Liang are separate, different but all pursued with kindness and tenderness. This is a man who loves to feed people not just physically but in the soul as well.

His daughters are a different bunch, all of whom are stereotypes in a sense but still accorded personalities of their own. Like me, you are likely to form opinions of them based on your own particular point of view informed by your own experiences in life. I won’t judge here; the performances are all solid and you will love them or hate them as individuals but you will have an opinion. These are not the meek, submissive Asian women of a different age – even Jia-Jen who seems the meekest of the three has a core of iron.

Some will find the lives of the daughters a bit soap opera-esque and that may be a turn-off for those sorts. I can understand that; it’s a fair criticism. For my part, I didn’t really mind. When looked at as a cohesive whole, the entanglements of their lives are as dense and complex as the entanglements of our own. If we’re lucky.

Like any Chinese feast, this is meant to be savored slowly and enjoyed for a lifetime. I haven’t seen Lee’s preceding film The Wedding Banquet but it is said to be superior. One of these days I’ll have to check it out. In the meantime, I highly recommend this delectable morsel. If you love Chinese cooking, Chinese cinema, or family dramas – or any combination thereof – this is a meal that was meant just for you.

WHY RENT THIS: A lovely entwining of family and food. Funny in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit hard to follow sometimes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some bad language and adult situations as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening sequence, depicting the detailed preparation of a Sunday lunch, took more than a week to film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an interview with director Lee and his long-time producer partner James Schamus newly recorded for the DVD version which arrived in 2002.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.3M on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tortilla Soup

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies concludes!

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Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime

Dream House


Dream House

Rachel Weisz is worried that Daniel Craig's performance is a little unfocused.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Universal) Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Jane Alexander, Taylor Geare, Claire Geare, Rachel Fox, Brian Murray, Bernadette Quigley, Sarah Gadon, Gregory Smith. Directed by Jim Sheridan

A house is just four walls, a floor and a roof. It’s a dwelling, a place to store your stuff and a place to lay your head at night. There’s no emotional connection; it’s a hotel room that’s personalized for you. A home is an entirely different matter; there are people you love, memories – ghosts, if you will.

Will Atenton (Craig) is a successful New York publisher who is giving it all up for a more bucolic lifestyle upstate. He aches to spend more time with his family – wife Libby (Weisz) and daughters Dee Dee (C. Geare) and Trish (T. Geare). The house is a bit of a fixer upper but it has some potential. It’s winter and roaring fires are the order of the day and what could be cozier than that?

Except that the neighbors are affixing some odd looks at Will and his family. There is obviously some hostility, particularly with asshole neighbor Jack Patterson (Csokas) who is going through a bitter divorce and custody battle with wife Ann (Watts) over their daughter Chloe (Fox). Will chalks it up to just general New England suspiciousness and moves on with his life.

Then things start to spiral into the deep end. Will shoos some Goth teenagers out of his basement and discovers evidence that the last family that lived in the house had been massacred – and the father Peter Ward, the only survivor of the massacre (with a nasty gunshot wound to the head) was the suspect in the case. Peter had been committed to Greenhaven Psychiatric Hospital but after five years had just been released. The girls begin to see strange figures outside peering into the house.

Will is determined to get to the bottom of things and decides to investigate further. The more he finds out, the more troubling the situation becomes. It turns out Ann may know far more than she’s letting on. And when Will goes to Greenhaven to talk to Peter Ward’s doctor, he finds out something so shocking and chilling that it threatens his very sanity; and there is no doubt that someone wants Will and his family dead. Could Peter Ward be coming home at last?

Sheridan (director of such movies as In America and In the Name of the Father) is a steady, talented director who is not known for horror films, and his inexperience in the genre shows here. He did have the presence of mind to hire Caleb Deschanel as cinematographer, and the Oscar-winning Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey by the by) would normally have been a master stroke, but while the movie looks slick with all sorts of barren winterscapes and homey hearths there is nothing really that adds to the tension.

Craig is rapidly becoming one of film’s best leading men, and he certainly looks the part here. He gets shirtless an awful lot in the movie (considering it’s set in the dead of winter) and the part calls for him to change emotional tableaux in split seconds and he’s more than up to the task. His onscreen chemistry with Weisz is genuine and adds an extra measure of enjoyment to the movie. Watts is given less to do and her character could have used more fleshing out.

I need to address something here. The movie’s major plot twist is unconscionably revealed in the trailer – if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. There have been rumors that Sheridan had angered the production bosses at Morgan Creek, the production company for the movie, for deviating from the established script heavily (Sheridan has a reputation for liking to work improvisationally) and after disastrous focus group screenings, forced reshoots, finally editing the movie to their own standards. Sheridan reportedly requested his name be removed from the film and he, Craig and Weisz all refused to do publicity for the movie.

There is certainly an appearance that the reveal was done deliberately and childishly in order to sabotage the movie, and I’m quite certain Sheridan, Craig and Weisz all feel that’s the case. Of course, I don’t know it for certain – but I do know that the movie was ruined by its own marketing. Certainly not knowing that revelation (which I have deliberately omitted here) made the film less enjoyable. If you haven’t seen the trailer, I strongly urge you not to.

Be that as it may, the movie is far from perfect in any case. There is never any real tension generated by the movie, and what could have been an atmospheric thriller with overtones of supernatural horror becomes a substandard potbroiler that fools nobody and entertains very few. The damn shame of it all is that the movie is actually pretty well-written and with a few tweaks here and there could have been really entertaining. Alas, this is going to go down as a case where a director-producer feud may have ultimately ruined a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Craig is a compelling performer. There is a good deal of tension and overall the movie is well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: The main plot twist is revealed in the trailer. The identity of the real killer is weak and doesn’t fool anybody.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some terror, a little sensuality and briefly some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weisz and Craig began a romantic relationship after meeting on set. They were recently married in a discrete ceremony.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one for the home front.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 50/50