While the actors all turn in fine performances in director Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman the real star of the film is the food. Not since Babette's Feast and Like Water for Chocolate has a motion picture given such mouthwatering due to meals.
The film opens with widower Tao Chu preparing Sunday dinner for his three daughters. He guts the fish, he kills the chicken, he inflates the goose. He slices, he dices, he minces, he kneads, he grates, he boils, he stirs. His hands are sure, his fingers deft. He chops a vegetable with the speed and grace of an expert, narrowly avoiding his fingertips with each economical stroke of the razor-sharp knife. You just know the meal he's working on will be a masterpiece.
Nonetheless Chu has a little problem. He is Taipei's chef of chefs, but, in the first of Eat Drink's many small ironies, he is losing his sense of taste. And, to stretch telling irony into full-blown food metaphor, Chu's deteriorating taste for food parallels his loss of enthusiasm for life following his wife's passing. Making matters worse, his beautiful, meticulously prepared dishes are wasted on his three daughters, who have come to dread the every-Sunday feasting ritual. They nibble and pick and can't wait to break out the Tupperware and seal up all the leftovers and run off to pursue romance.
If chewing on food metaphors isn't your meat perhaps you'd better wait for another cinematic entree. Eat Drink Man Woman is choking with them. Some are exquisitely subtle, others pedestrian. Fortunately Lee spices things up with enough humor to make the whole repast palatable.
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Chu's cooking may not get much respect at home, but in the kitchen of the luxurious four-star restaurant where he calls the shots, he is king. Old friend and co-worker Wen serves as his taste buds while on duty and as his drinking bud afterward. Chu's prowess is unmatched; he can divine not only that one of his unsuspecting staff has purchased counterfeit shark fins, he can spontaneously whip up a recipe that will make the best possible use of the bogus ingredients in time to salvage an important political banquet.
And so it goes, Chu's dominion over the restaurant's kitchen contrasting starkly with his inability to please his daughters, all of whom are looking for a different kind of love than their father can give without resorting to incest. Jia-Jen, the eldest, is a spinster schoolteacher with an eye for a comically inept assistant volleyball coach. Twenty-year-old Jia-Ning works at a Wendy's and has a crush on her best friend's boyfriend. And middle sister Jia-Chien, an airline executive and talented cook in her own right, dallies with a lingering ex-boyfriend and contemplates an affair with a married colleague.
Food and sex. It doesn't get much more basic than that. Lee, whose The Wedding Banquet was such a sublime comedy, once again explores familiar territory -- parent-child relationships and clashing generational ideas. But this time out he lapses into melodrama too often. Most of the film's second act is predictable, but there's just enough idiosyncratic, character-driven humor to leaven things until the big surprise ending ("Life isn't like cooking after all," muses Chu), which, like a really delicious dessert after a mediocre meal, leaves a sweet taste in your mouth as you push away from the table.
Eat Drink Man Woman is no Banquet, but it's appetizing enough fare.