In Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), a retired chef and his three daughters come together every Sunday for an extravagant Chinese feast. Despite the abundance of mouthwatering dishes that lay plated in front of them, the children show no interest in being there; they have other priorities in the fields of romance, demanding office work, and academic studies. In a modernizing Taipei, they heed the call of individualism, and family dinner becomes a bothersome chore in a busy schedule.
The sisters are racing to move out of the household, not wanting to be left with the grim responsibility of taking care of their aging father. While the middle child is occupied with her thriving corporate career and the youngest with her studies, the oldest sister—an unmarried, devout Christian working as a high-school teacher—is convinced that she would be the one to carry the burden. However, the unpredictability of life prevails over clichés. In a fast-paced city, unexpected pregnancies, financial hardship, and death can arrive as quickly as Chinese banquet meals reach wedding-reception dining tables. As drama ensues, each passing Sunday dinner becomes a stage for a family member’s exit from the household.
As conveyed in the title, food and sex are the film’s central motifs; budding romance blooms in street-food joints, and homemade cooking becomes a display of vulnerability. Although it is on the round table that the family slowly crumbles, it is through the mundane acts of cooking and eating that relationships are formed and reformed. Director Ang Lee understands the dining table as an important communal space in Chinese households. The act of sharing a meal is a form of union that strengthens interpersonal and cultural ties, which may have been lost in the growing modernity of Taipei. However, Lee gives us some hope of holding onto our roots despite the rapidly changing world.
There is a peculiar intimacy in cooking for others, in scooping up food to place on another’s plate, in washing dishes together while bickering and expressing heartache. Eat Drink Man Woman considers food as a sixth love language.
Eat Drink Man Woman screens today, December 25, and on dates through January 1 at Metrograph as part of the series “Taipei Stories.”