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18 August 2014

Yin shi nan nu

Eat Drink Man Woman
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring: Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang, 
Sylvia Chang, Winston Chao, Chao-jung Chen, 
Lester Chit-Man Chan, Yu Chen, Ah-Leh Gua, Jui Wang

I watched this film a while ago, and while I had seen its remake, Tortilla Soup, and liked it, I found (surprise, surprise!) that the original was darker, and much more nuanced.  

Master Chu (Sihung Lung) may have retired from his profession as Master Chef at one of Taipei's fine restaurants, but he hasn't given up his passion for cooking. He lives with his three daughters, whom he has single-handedly brought up since his wife died more than sixteen years ago. When the movie begins, we see him at home, working quickly and efficiently to cook the Sunday dinner for his family. 

For all his artistry, there is something mechanical about his movements as he quickly prepares one delectable dish after another. It is an emotion (or lack thereof) that seems to be mirrored in his second daughter Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), a successful corporate executive, who is the closest to him in nature, and therefore the most likely to butt heads with him. Jia-Chien, who is in a friends-with-benefits situation with an old friend, Raymond (Lester Chit-Man Chien), describes the dinners as 'torture'.  And indeed, the tension at the dinner table can be cut with a knife. 
However, dutiful daughter that she is, she still shows up at her father's table, where she quickly antagonises her father by criticising the soup. It is true, she tells her sisters when their father leaves to get the next course. He is losing his sense of taste. Her two sisters also have their own reservations. The eldest, Jia-Jen (Kuei Mei-Yang), a school teacher, has been mourning the loss of her college boyfriend for years. She has turned to Christianity for solace, and while Master Chu says nothing, he is keenly aware of the fact that she is a spinster. The youngest, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), is a college student who works at Wendy's, to earn money.  

Jia-Chien is the first to make an important announcement (the first of many in the film) at the dining table - with some amount of trepidation. She is moving out as soon as her apartment is ready. (She has had these plans for a long time, and has sunk her life's savings into what she sees as an escape route.) 
Master Chu is non-committal. Real estate is a very smart investment, is all he says. Jia-Jen is not very happy at the news, though she later claims otherwise. As the eldest, she had slipped into her mother's role after the latter's death. This comes at the cost of her personal life and there is a resentment that simmers under her tightly controlled façade. The meal goes on, and it seems Master Chu has an announcement of his own to make, but he is interrupted - by a distress call from the restaurant he used to work in. He is still the person they call for when the shark fins that the restaurant was to serve a General and his guests' at the general's son's wedding feast, turn into a gooey mess.
As soon as they are alone, Jia-Chien tries to make amends but is given a glimpse into the frustration that her sister feels - their father will also be her responsibility, as the family had become when their mother died. The sisters have grown so far apart that none of them really understand the other. 
Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) drops in just then with her little girl, Shan-Shan. Her arrival interrupts the sisters' tete-a-tete. Jin-Rong is the sister of Jia-Jen's old classmate, and a close friend of the Chu family. A divorcee and single mother, Jin-Rong has come to talk about her mother, who had been staying with her sister in the US. Her mother doesn't approve of her elder daughter's husband because he is American, says Jin-Rong, and she, Jin-Rong, is beyond help anyway because she is divorced. Jin-Rong is also worried because her ex-husband has a private investigator tailing her, so he can fight her for the custody of their daughter. In turn, Jia-Jen also shares some of her frustrations with her friend. 
The fact is that none of them really know what their father wants - nor have they asked him. 
Their father is seemingly emotionless, hiding his feelings behind an inscrutable demeanour. And though he is a good cook, he is not very happy. As he shares a drink with his friend Old Wen (Jui Wang), after the kitchen crisis has passed, he complains that the world is changing too fast for him; no one really appreciates traditional Chinese cuisine (or indeed, culture) any more. What is worse, he bemoans, he is losing his sense of taste. His cooking skills are just fine, but he has to depend on Wen now to taste the food to ensure that it is just right. His frustration with life is growing, and when Wen cracks a sexual joke, Master Chu retorts: "Eat, drink, man, woman, - is that all there is to life? 

Meanwhile, Jia-Neng (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest, who had run into the neglected boyfriend of her friend and colleague while on her way to the Sunday dinner feels rather sorry for him. Her friend is playing hard to get, and the boy is so in love that he continues to wait for her even though she is cruel to him. He is 'addicted to love' he confesses, and when she meets him again, Jia-Neng grabs hold of him and takes him off with her to eat lunch, giving him some much needed advice while eating. 
Subsequent meetings bring them closer, a fact that Jia-Neng keeps hidden from her friend. 

Master Chu has recently taken up jogging in the morning, 'to keep healthy', he says. One morning, he meets little Shan-Shan, and is aghast to realise that she buys lunch in school when her mother is too busy it for her. He takes it upon himself to make lunch for her everyday. It will be their secret, he tells her, and when her mother gives her lunch, he will eat it instead of Shan-Shan. 
He returns home, and wakes his daughters up as he usually does. When Jia-Chien gets into work, the chairman announces a new corporate hire at a team meeting. Li Kai (Winston Chao) is the wonder boy, a young achiever, pegged to go far, and on a fast track. It is a huge fillip to the airlines to be able to hire him, and they are looking to him to discover ways in which to increase the airlines' profits. Jia-Chien is intrigued. And attracted.
Back home, a chance jocular remark about her sister's clothes (their father does their laundry and always mixes up their clothes) and her life brings their old tensions to the surface. Even though Jia-Chien apologises immediately, the argument deepens. 
When Jia-Jen remarks that no one really cared that she had taken on the role of their mother, a wounded Jia-Chien retorts that when their mother died, Jia-Jen only lost a mother; she lost both her mother and her sister. 

The next day at work, Jia-Chien receives two bits of news - the good news is that she has been promoted to the chief of the airlines' European bureau. The bad, or at least, slightly worrisome, news is that she is being transferred to Amsterdam. On her way back home, she stops by Raymond's apartment to tell him the news. She decides to cook an elaborate dinner, and as she does so, she confesses that she used to always hang around the hotel's kitchen when she was a child. She loved to cook, and had an affinity for the culinary arts, only her father made her go to college. She's resented him since, and their relationship changed for the worse. 
Her night is not over yet. Old Wen was taken ill while tasting Master Chu's cooking; he collapsed in the restaurant and has been rushed to the hospital. Master Chu is there with him, and his first call is to Jia-Chien, who hurries to the hospital. By the time she arrives, however, Old Wen is stable. That they share a fondness is evident in their conversation. Uncle Wen, as Jia-Chien calls him, asks her to forgive her father for not allowing her to become a chef. He sent her to university because he wanted more for her, says Old Wen. 
The next day is not any better - though she and Li Kai have come to a better understanding of each other, Jia-Chien discovers that the builder of the apartment of her dreams had decamped with the deposit money. The company was bankrupt, and the site was condemned. And when she returns to the hospital in the evening to visit Uncle Wen, it is to find that he had checked himself out that morning. But she sees something else that gives her pause.
There is still worse to come. Jin-Rong's mother has come home from the US, and Jin-Rong has brought her home to visit the Chus. Madame Liang (Ah-Leh Gua) has very strong opinions, and is not at all loath to show that she considers Master Chu very attractive.  She also has a very dim view of life.
The sisters are a bit taken aback at her brazenness. But civility forces them to endure her little barbs, and her constant attempts to charm their father. 

Jia-Chien is not the only sister to get bad news. The following day Jia-Neng finds her friend in tears. Her boyfriend wasn't coming along to wait for her any more, and she didn't know why. And she did love him, she did!
A guilt-ridden Jia-Neng is forced to confess that she had become intimate with Guo-Lun (Chao-Jun Chen) because she didn't think the friend cared. And soon it is her her turn to make an important announcement at the dining table. 
Master Chu says nothing; he silently watches his youngest daughter become the first fledgling to leave the nest. It is her departure that makes Jia-Chien realise just how resentful Jia-Jen is at the circumstances that keep her tied to her home. 
It turns out that Jia-Jen is also frustrated at work. Each morning when she walks into the staffroom at school, she finds an anonymous love letter addressed to her on her table. Who is writing this to her? The old professor who sits next to her? The teacher opposite? There is also the new young and attractive volleyball coach, who has invited her to come and watch a volleyball game. But the truth, which Jia-Jen guesses accurately, is even more unpalatable.

Meanwhile, something is nagging at Jia-Chen, something that her sister said the previous night about her ill-fated romance. A surprise encounter at work wipes it out of her mind, until it is brought back with a vengeance. Her reaction doesn't get the response she expects. What is worse is that Li-Kai doesn't even remember Jia-Jen at first. And when he does, it is Jia-Chen's turn to get a surprise. 
Once again, that is not the only surprise she gets that day. When Jia-Chien stops by at Raymond's apartment to talk things over, there is another unpleasant surprise in store for her. Raymond has another woman inside, he explains apologetically. Taken aback, Jia-Chen leaves, but the day is not over yet. Uncle Wen, who had checked himself out of the hospital, had returned to work, only to sits down on his chair and die. Master Chu is bereft, and of the three sisters, it is Jia-Chien who is most affected. 
Soon, her father and she are in for another surprise. It appears that Jia-Jen, after many years of abstinence and mourning, is in a relationship with the volleyball coach. Not only that, the relationship has deepened rather quickly. So quickly in fact, she has an announcement of her own to make. 
So goes another sister to her own home. And strangely enough, it is Jia-Chien, who was supposed to be the first to leave, who is left alone with their father. The house is silent, but not for long. At the next family dinner, where Jia-Chien, her father, the two married daughters, their spouses, Jin-Rong, and her mother, Madame Liang, are all present, Master Chu gets up to make his own announcement, one that he had been trying to make for a very long time. The daughters' reactions vary, but not very much. It is safe to say that they disapprove.
What is Master Chu proposing to do? Why do his daughters disapprove? And if he does what he sets out to do, what is there in Jia-Chien's future?

Yin shi nan nu (Eat Drink Man Woman) is director Ang Lee's third feature film, and the first to be set, and shot in Taipei. 
It is also the concluding part of his trilogy about the friction that develops between parents and children in ethnic Chinese families. (The first two films were Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet. Director Lee referred to them as his 'Father knows best' trilogy.) According to Lee, in Chinese culture, food is something to share, and he decided to use food as the film's central motif. He is also recording the slow decay of traditional Chinese culture, and the inroads that modernity has made into urban society. In the film, while Master Chu is respected as an old school chef, his youngest daughter works in a Wendy's outlet. 
Sihung Lung is perfectly cast as the dour and incommunicative Master Chu. The only way he knows to show affection is to make complex and elaborate feasts for the family's weekly dinner. It is a tradition that he follows, and it is clear that it is his way of holding on to the tenuous bonds that bind him to his daughters, who seem to be growing farther away from him each day. As he says to Old Wen, "I don't understand any of them, and I don't want to know. Let them grow up and leave. It's like cooking. Your appetite's gone when the dish is done." 

His sense of taste is also diminishing, along with the ennui that has set in. His profession doesn't mean the same any more, since there are very few people around who still appreciate the art that goes into the preparation of food. Yet, one can see that the passion for cooking is still there - in the food he prepares for the weekly dinners, in the lunches he prepares for little Shan-Shan, when he tells Old Wen (when the latter asks him how he is going to turn the ruined Shark Fin Soup into 'Joy Luck Dragon Phoenix'), "I don't know, but I will by the time I finish.
Jia-Jen is the stereotype of the repressed spinster. (Even her profession, that of a school teacher reinforces that stereotype.) She is supposed to be mourning her long-lost college boyfriend, but as Jia-Chien's interrogation of Li-Kai shows, the truth is not so simple. Whatever be the cause, she has turned to religion for solace, and has been abstinent for nine years. When Jia-Chien expresses her astonishment at her sister marrying a 'heathen', she replies jokingly (but with an underlying seriousness), "He will be."
Jia-Chien, the middle sister, is the most successful of the three. She is also the most driven -  by her passion for cooking which she is forced to renounce in her childhood, by her need to get out of what she considers the stifling atmosphere at home, by her affinity to her father. In the final reckoning, she is the responsible one, the capable one. As her boss says when he hands her the promotion, she is too young for the job, but she is far better than the male staff who are working in Amsterdam. Even losing all her savings in the real estate scam doesn't faze her - as she tells Raymond later, it just sets her free to go to Amsterdam and begin anew. 

And she is the one to whom her father turns everytime there is a crisis - when Old Wen is sick, when Wen dies, when Chu seeks some comfort at the end. 
It is her redemption as well - the father who had turned her away from her passion for cooking,  is finally eating what she cooks. Not only that, his dying taste buds are awakened. They are the closest in affinity, and it seems right that they should come to a better undestanding of each other over food. 

I cannot not mention the fantastic Madame Liang. Ah-Leh Gua is an absolute joy to watch. She plays the predatory matron with wicked charm; she is sure that no woman can live alone, but doesn't have much respect for men as a whole. She sets her sights on Master Chu when she first meets him, and amidst clouds of cigarette smoke, sets about seducing him. She is so sure that an old widower with three daughters would love to have a wife like her that she completely misreads his feelings. 

Yin shi nan nu is an engaging film in many aspects. It is the emotions, in fact, that draw you deeper into this film. The story, of a father and his three daughters, and the fraying of the bonds between them as the daughters grow and become adults in their own right, is a universal one. Director Ang Lee moors his story in a social and cultural ethos that he is familiar with (it is his only film that is set in his hometown of Taiwan), but the emotions and the decisions (made by the characters) transcend those barriers. Set this story in India, for instance, and it will still resonate. The 'generation gap' and the inability to break through well-entrenched tradition, is a common-enough experience.  

Ang Lee uses food as a narrative prop. The banquet that Master Chu cooks up for dinner in the film is almost a ritual. Food in Chinese culture is meant to be shared. And dining is a social occasion. In an interview, Lee admitted that the scenes with food were shot to draw a sensory response from the audience. While that may have been his primary motive, Lee also uses food to show the blocked channels of communication between the family members. For all the luscious dishes that the patriarch cooks, the characters are often talking over the food, about the food, but there is precious little eating going on in the film.

The film doesn't travel the tried and tested path of a single narrative. Each character gets his (or her) own story, and each of the four interlinked and sometimes, parallel narratives, share a common theme - that of the inability of each to really communicate with the others. But even though Master Chu says that he doesn't understand his daughters (and doesn't want to), he still labours for hours to cook up a feast for their dinner. It is this dichotomy that underlies the whole film. There is love, but it is unsaid. There is conflict, but it remains unspoken (until it blows up). And while the meals are made ostensibly so the family can bond over dinner, we see that the characters move further away from each other, especially after each 'announcement'. The film therefore becomes darker and much more complex than the plot suggests.    

Last, but definitely not the least, are its visuals. 
I am not a great fan of Chinese food, and as a vegetarian, certainly cannot imagine eating most of what is shown on the table, but oh, I haven't felt this hungry since I reviewed Babettes Gæstebud and Ustad HotelThis review should probably come with a warning - do not watch on an empty stomach!


  1. Ah, finally a new foreign language film that I have seen! (and liked - especially since I love Oriental food). I watched this one shortly after seeing The Wedding Banquet, and liked this far better. Loved the different stories, all separate, yet all coming together - and the end was just how I wanted it to be.

    Talking of 'food films' (of which I end up watching almost each that comes my way), there are several which focus on Oriental food, and which I've enjoyed. Tampopo used to be a favourite, but after that, I've watched Le Grand Chef and its sequel, Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle and they've displaced Tampopo: both very enjoyable. :-)

  2. This was a lovely film, wasn't it? I'd watched Tortilla Soup, the American remake of this one, set in a Mexican-American household, and while I liked it then, I can see how they trivialised the whole plot. (It is still a good film to watch, though.) I haven't watched any of the films you mentioned. I have watched but a handful of films from Asia, other than the usual selection of Iranian films. Perhaps more Chinese language films than anything else, I think. And maybe one or two Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese... Which is a shame, because there are obviously some really decent films out there. I have put the films you mention on my to-see list. Thanks for the recommendations.

  3. Thank you, Ravi. Let's say I found it very difficult to stop at 16 songs. :) Which is why Shalini's suggestion that I do multiple lists of his duets is so tempting. Even so, I know I will have the same trouble.

    Yes, I read tid-bits of the book by his daughter-in-law - it was not my cup of tea at all. And to think that there is a wealth of information about his life and career that could have been brought out! I think it is a wasted opportunity.

  4. I don't think I've ever seen any Vietnamese films, though I have seen one from the Philippines (sp? - can't be bothered to check right now). A few Chinese, a couple of Japanese ones, and loads of Korean films. Most people who're into Korean pop culture tend to focus only on Korean TV dramas (which I have also fallen in love with!), but I do think they have some very good films too. Lots of lovely soppy romance, but I've also come across some totally hacky comedy, chilling thrillers, and more.

    And I haven't seen any Iranian films. :-(

  5. I should delve further into the world of Korean cinema. :)

    And I haven't seen any Iranian films. :-(
    Can't recommend them enough. The ones I have seen have been wonderful. Though, if you ever get your hands on The Taste of Cherry, please do fling the DVD as hard as you can outside. Preferably from the top of the Qutub Minar.

  6. Thank you, Ravi.

    I cannot understand why Hitchcock felt it was not among his best.

    From his interview*, it appears that he didn't want to direct the film in the first place. However, he was bound by contract to direct one more film for Warner Bros. He specifically said that he had 'phoned it in'. I too think it is a great film, and like you, can watch it again and again.

    *François Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock extensively. These interviews became the source material for the book, Hitchcock by Truffaut. Which, unfortunately, is out of print, and used copies are selling for their weight in gold. I did stumble upon the raw audio files of their interviews, if you are interested.
    (Warning: there are over 12 hours worth.)


  7. That bad? :-D Thank you for the warning!

  8. Anu Ji,

    Read your review last week, but could watch the movie yesterday.

    Dial M for Murder was really gripping movie and your review too was good. I enjoyed watching this movie again, after reading your review. In my opinion, it’s a dialogue based film, one has to listen to dialogue attentively. But the non-dialogue part, where Tony silently and coolly executes his plan B, is also equally engaging. Here
    one has to carefully go along with Tony and observe the process carefully and draw our conclusion. Thus the movie provides a cerebral exercise for the viewers. Like in all the Hitchcock movies we tend to think along the lines and actions of the main character.
    It is always a great experience watching Hitchcock movies.
    Thank you once again for the wonderful review.

  9. Thank you for the appreciation.

    You are very right about the silences being engaging as well, Mr Venkatraman. Hitchcock truly deserved the tag of 'Master of Suspense', didn't he?

  10. I saw this film years ago and while I don't remember all the details, I do remember: liking it and being a tad shocked at Master Chu's announcement. :-)

  11. :) Why? (Why were you shocked, I mean?) Yes, it was a surprise, but I don't have an issue with May-December romances, and the ick feeling most women here get when they see the age difference doesn't bother me one bit.

  12. I had to go back and forth while reading this review. I do get a bit confused by these names, who is who? I was mixing them up. Be that as it may, it seems to be a film with a good story. Considering that the only Chinese films that we are exposed to are those "Hoo Ha" (read martial arts, that's what I call that genre) films, this film appears to be a refreshing change.

  13. The names are confusing! I had to check and double check to make sure that I was writing about the right sister!

    This film was decent. Not great, but it was well worth the time I spent on it.

  14. Wah Rafisaab! You will always remain the greatest playback singer of all time, No one will ever be able to match the amazing voice of the King of Hindi playback singing.
    May God give you Janet a Fardous as you gave us your beautiful voice to listen forever.
    Thank you Rafisaab
    Shahed Ahmed UK

  15. Adored this film. Remember the long title sequence where butchers/cooks/cleans for the evening meal? :) I doubt many vegetarians could sit through it. Enjoyed the film so much!

  16. I'm a vegetarian, and while the cook in me appreciated the preparation, I could barely watch the sequence for a long time. :)

  17. Venu Kolathur5 May 2015 at 11:01

    Hi Anuradha,

    I stumbled upon this site in a rather round about way. From Maddy's site to Songs of Yore to here. :)

    Lovely blog. I just got started and have gone through only 3 yet. Being a die hard Rafi fan (who believes that there are other singers out there who are great, but if forced to name a favourite singer, will end up naming the one only - Rafi) I jumped to the write ups about Rafi first. As you and others have said it is too difficult to make a "best 'n' songs list". But having looked at your list, I wonder whether you have heard his song from Poonam Ki Raat (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koVU6r9FW48)? Or his "Jaata hoon main ..." from Daadi Maa (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7JsRqw_Tic) or "Mera to jo hi kadam hain .." from Dosti (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXNWlE71vvE).

    Also in case you have not listened to Rafi's ghazals/nazms/geet (not from movies) you have a treasure trove of songs waiting for you! :) May be you can make a list of those also.


  18. Hi Venu, welcome to my blog and thank you for the kind words. I'm glad you decided to tarry awhile, even if it is Mohammed Rafi who led you to stay. :)

    I have heard Mera toh jo bhi kadam hai and Dil tadpe tadpaye (with a husband who loves all things Salilda, how can I not have heard the songs from Poonam ki Raat? *grin); I don't remember having heard this particular song from Dadi Maa, though I haven't clicked the link yet. Will do so tomorrow.

    I have heard some of Rafi's non-film songs, not all. I like Rafi; it doesn't matter what he is singing. :)

  19. Well for me the best voice and singer is yesudas. Been a great admirer of rafi and saigal but yesudas is miles ahead in terms of voice beauty, range, singing ability and soulfulness. I learnt malayalam just to enjoy and understand his singing.

  20. My husband totally agrees with you. :)

    Since I'm talking here of Hindi film songs, I don't include Yesudas, because, for me, he is not primarily a Hindi film playback singer. I love his Malayalam songs, and there was a period when he really couldn't go wrong.


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