Between college, grad school, working, and grad school again, I’ve lived a thousand or more miles from my family for the last ten years. This means that for one reason or another, I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in just about as long — and this year, that fact is making me even sadder than usual. Suffice it to say, I’ve got family and meals on the brain, which made me think of a favorite food film.
In Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), director Ang Lee expertly tells the story of changing family dynamics in Taipei, Taiwan during a time of rapid modernization, employing a universal medium — food. Through Chef Chu who has lost his sense of taste and his three daughters, this film addresses many themes, including gender, family, and globalization.
Gender and authority come to the fore in this film, as they do in the public world of food where men in general are more likely to hold positions of power. Such is the case for Chef Chu. While he no longer works full time at The Grand Hotel, he acts with assured confidence when he is called in to help the all male staff to rectify a dish that is being served at an important dinner. The traditional, authoritative, masculine role of cook is complicated in the film, however, as Chef Chu’s authority is not well recognized by his daughters. In addition, his second daughter aspires to be a master chef like her father, a narrative point that emphasizes the film’s theme of transition and change.
Eat Drink Man Woman also discusses family, again focusing on transition. Though he is unable for much of the film to communicate with his own daughters — through food or otherwise — Chef Chu prepares elaborate lunches for his (somewhat secret) fiancé’s daughter, an action that elevates her status at school and nourishes her both emotionally and physically. In this way, these special noon-time meals are similar to obento in that they aid a child to make a transition that could be difficult, not from the home to school, but from a single parent family to a new family.
While Eat Drink Man Woman discusses transitions in gender roles and family structure through food, the film’s overarching theme is not food itself, but rather the forces of modernization and globalization that bring on these changes. For example, Chef Chu’s elaborate traditional family meals, the luxurious cuisine of The Grand Hotel, and the fast food restaurant where his youngest daughter works all coexist, representing the contemporary state of globalized Taiwan. In this way, his second daughter most fully embodies the complexity and conflict of these transformations. Through her, Lee’s film portrays a character caught between tradition and modernization, family obligation and independence, who eventually finds balance and solace in food.
Myself, I hope for something simpler: to be home for the holidays at some point in the near future.