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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The Ledge


The Ledge

Sometimes the view from the top isn't the one you want to have.

(2011) Suspense (IFC) Charlie Hunnam, Liv Tyler, Patrick Wilson, Terrence Howard, Jaqueline Fleming, Chris Gorham, Maxine Greco, Geraldine Singer, Dean West, Jillian Batherson, Tyler Humphrey, Mike Pniewski, Katia Gomez. Directed by Matthew Chapman

 

How far would you go for love? Most of us are willing to go out of our way to get flowers or dry cleaning, or maybe give up watching the big game to take her to the opera. How many of us would stand out on a ledge for hours, knowing that if we don’t jump by a certain time the one we love will die in our place?

That’s the dilemma placed before Gavin Nichols (Hunnam). He has had the bad luck to fall for Shana Harris (Tyler) who works for him in the hotel he manages. Not so much bad luck to fall for a co-worker; bad luck because she’s married to Joe (Wilson), a fundamentalist Christian whacko. In fairness, Joe rescued Shana from a life of drug abuse, prostitution and otherwise not-niceness.

Joe, as you might guess, didn’t like the thought of his wife sleeping with another man much. He goes a little bit psychotic – all right, a lot psychotic – particularly because Gavin is an atheist who rooms with a gay man. If there’s anything that would drive a conservative Christian crazier, I can’t think of it at the moment. Joe is particularly affronted because he’d had them into his home for dinner and spirited discussions (read as lectures) about faith and spirituality.

So he kidnaps his own wife and sets her in a room opposite a high rise and tells Gavin he needs to climb out on the ledge and wait there until a certain time of day. At that time, he is to jump. Otherwise he’ll get to witness his love shot in the head.

Of course, his being out on a ledge attracts the attention of the police and Detective Hollis Lucetti (Howard) is sent out to talk him down. Lucetti is having a bad day of his own. He has just found out that he’s sterile. That’s no picnic in and of itself, but when you’re married and have watched your wife give birth to two kids who are supposedly your own…that can make you question a few things – like your wife’s fidelity. He’s dealing with this and trying to talk Gavin down and meanwhile time is ticking away…

I really like this premise a lot. It makes for excellent suspense fodder. Unfortunately, it bogs down quite a bit. The spirituality/faith aspect kind of muddies the waters. I’m not too down with conservative Christians to begin with but why do they get portrayed as nutcases in movies so much? I know plenty of Christians who have sex lives that are just fine and don’t go off the deep end when confronted with homosexuality or atheism. They make convenient villains, I guess.

Wilson does twitchy as well as any actor out there. He can be menacing while still seeming normal and nice on the surface. That’s an art form in itself, folks. Kudos to Wilson for his performance here. Howard is a terrific actor who never seems to give a bad performance. He doesn’t give a bad one here either. Tyler is lustrous and Hunnam, which most U.S. audiences would know from the “Sons of Anarchy” cable show is solid.

I would have personally preferred a more straightforward suspense film here. It works without the ecumenical finger-pointing I think. The atheism vs. Christian argument turns into a distraction, particularly since nobody seems to be able to make any points that have any sort of freshness to them. If that kind of thing floats your boat, there are plenty of debates on the subject available on the Internet that are far more intriguing than this.

Sometimes simple is better and that’s one that got by the filmmakers in this instance. It’s not a bad film – don’t get me wrong – it’s just kind of not memorable. I would even say it’s good but it’s really just shy of that – it has a lot of good elements to it. It just doesn’t have enough of them to really move me to recommend you make much of an effort to find this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Decent performances from the leads. Nice premise. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much going on – was sterility subplot really necessary?

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality, plenty of bad language and a couple of instances of violent behavior.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,216 on an unreported production budget; no way this made any money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Cabin in the Woods