EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN: The Family That Eats Together Stays Together
Eat Drink Man Woman is currently streaming on Tubi.
The following features spoilers for Eat Drink Man Woman. Please watch the film first and then read this immediately after!
All I remember from my childhood are tastes, and all I remember of my adulthood is not being able to replicate the tastes perfectly on my own. There’s two recipes I have from both of my grandmothers and the only accomplishment I can give to myself is that when I taste my own rendition, I am faintly reminded of the original. It’s never quite the same though. And sure, Ratatouille is sort of our cultural go-to for the film that reminds us of how taste is the very essence of nostalgia and our greatest moments of connection, but I think this outpaces it.
My father’s mother made matzah ball soup, but she didn’t just make it during Passover, she made it year round. It was always the recipe she’d make whenever I had a bad day. She didn’t make it from a mix, she made it by hand, crumbling up pieces of matzah into a meal and making her own chicken broth. It was the only meal she could properly make, I don’t remember a single other thing she made. It was only matzah balls and broth, no chicken or vegetables like in my recipe, my additions to it. That taste comes to mind every time I eat one of my own matzah balls. Mine don’t ever compare to it, though after years of trying to make it, I’m finally in the same football field as her. I’ve finally begun to get the texture where I want it. That might also be because I’m no longer making the recipe out of mixes from boxes.
My mother’s mother, who is luckily still with us at this time of writing, is a fantastic cook all around. Pretty much anything she makes is absolutely incredible. But her premiere recipe, the one the rest of the family will all come over for, are her roasted Brussels sprouts. She uses a particular kind of balsamic vinaigrette for it, from a particular company, which she’s been buying since I was a baby. She will always make this recipe if asked, though I rarely ask her and let her choose to do so on my own. It’s a very simple recipe, and with my own bottle in my own fridge, I have tried time and time again to replicate it. Since the quarantine began, I’ve only been using frozen Brussels sprouts out of fear of catching the virus, and they’re way too soggy these days. But it’s still the approximation of the recipe, even as I’m able to talk to my grandmother over the phone and make sure she’s staying safe.
Something that really didn’t occur to me till I saw this film is exactly what quarantine has made me miss the most. Not necessarily food as in eating out, I didn’t really do that especially often even before. But I did miss the intimacy of family meals since it’s the only time our family ever really got along, no matter how much we might be at each other’s throats the rest of the time. I come from a particularly dysfunctional family, but nobody argued during meals. Nobody tried anything underhanded during meals. That is the cardinal rule of my somewhat traditionally Jewish family. Do whatever else you like after or before, but try something while you’re eating and it’ll be hell to pay from the eldest family member.
That’s my grandmother now. She has slid pretty effortlessly into the role of matriarch since my grandfather passed away two years ago. She was the cook before and after (my grandfather, a traditionally masculine man if there was any, proudly never cooked a meal in his life and had his wife do all the cooking), and she still insists on it at every family gathering pre-pandemic. It’s the unspoken rule of our family that you damn better well appreciate the cooking. A Jewish family like ours eats heartily and eats a lot at once. Eating is the very core of our faith in a lot of ways. The traditional joke that my family has made to each other since before I can remember (and maybe one your own family uses) is “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” My dad’s side of the family (all dead aside from he and I now) had an even more direct version of this philosophy: “You’re happy? Eat. You’re sad? Eat. You’re bored? Eat. You’re pissed off? Eat.” And so on and so forth, as many variations you can think of, and if one of my uncles caught wind of it, inevitably you’d hear stuff like “You’re constipated? Eat.”
Of course, this is not a film about Judaism, this is a film about a Taiwanese family in Taipei who are also deeply dysfunctional and a bit isolated and how the only way they know how to connect to one another anymore is over food. Even as their respective personal lives shatter into bits, even as their preconceived notions of themselves lead to incredibly impulsive choices, the Sunday meal with their father is the only thing that keeps them all together.
Three grown daughters: a cashier, a teacher and a corporate executive. Their father, one of Taiwan’s foremost chefs. Together, the foursome, none of whom seem to have any social interaction outside of work, make up the Chus, a family shattered by the death of their mother years earlier. Two of them reel from past relationships, one of them becoming a born-again Christian, infuriating the rest of her Buddhist family. The other continues to casually sleep with her former partner even as she wishes the relationship would rekindle itself, as clearly and obviously as this partner is taking advantage of her. The third, working in a Wendy’s, is the most exposed to the encroaching of late stage capitalism in Taiwan, and the least surprised by the fast-paced changes to their traditional household. Perhaps the most unrealistic part of that particular character arc is imagining someone enjoying a food service job. I sure as hell never enjoyed any of mine.
Each of them begins to develop a new relationship that would be a little trite if not for the film putting the onus of that desire entirely onto each of the daughters and their own desires. Even as these relationships fluctuate and change, they are still contrasted by the relationships they have with food. The middle daughter, Jia-Chien, cooks a meal for her FWB explaining that her father never allows her to cook inside her own home, making many of her own mother’s recipes that her father no longer allows anyone, even himself, to cook. The youngest daughter, Jia-Ning, never cooks food herself but also cultivates a relationship outside of her own job, where food isn’t given the same kind of respect.
The way the film is designed, from the performances to the way that compositions are framed and crafted, seems to be intentionally theatrical, and it works only because of these core anchors between food, sensuality and relationships between family growing and changing even when we don’t want them to. The over-stuffed dinner table, always packed full of food for too many people that eventually becomes a menagerie of leftovers, starts with four, then including a group of neighbors and the daughters’ respective partners, and then finally just the middle daughter and father.
The oldest daughter, Jia-Jen, spends most of the film expected to be the one forced to take care of her father as he loses his sense of taste (and retires from his career in shame, falling into a deep depression over it). Despite being the one seen as most mature and responsible (and constantly insulted for her abject refusal to find a spouse), she shacks up with her school’s volleyball coach, marries him before they ever go on a proper date so they can consummate their marriage, and has him convert to Christianity so that they can continue to have sex. Writer/director Ang Lee, himself a Buddhist, tends to view this with some form of amusement and makes this the least romantic of the three parallel plotlines, treating the entire conversion purely so she can get laid as a big joke. She accidentally sabotages Jia-Chien, seen as the most successful of the three, by claiming that her new partner was her former partner who had broken her heart several years earlier. Jia-Chien confronts her new partner about it only to discover that Jia-Jen had made the entire thing up, deeply ashamed that she had never been in a relationship before and harboring a crush on the man when they had both been attending school together. And so by a simple twist of fate, and one sister not realizing her effects on the other, it’s Jia-Jen who impulsively shatters her life for a man she’s just met and Jia-Chien who is (briefly) left to take care of her father as his health fails even more, even after her favorite uncle (and her father’s co-worker) abruptly dies while on the job, further contributing to his declining mental state.
I got a strange reminder of Shakespeare farces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night in which a series of central characters twist themselves into increasingly ridiculous scenarios in the name of their own impulsive lust and desire. Eat Drink Man Woman feels like a more emotionally mature version of those stories by at least being willing to admit that “happily ever after” isn’t true, but that doesn’t mean that sudden changes in life have to be entirely miserable either. The family around the dinner table, the only room in the entire home that doesn’t change in some way, swells and then reduces. Two scenes played for laughs show Old Chu (as he refers to himself) kicking two of his three daughters out of his home for having sex outside of marriage (Old Chu isn’t the most progressive type), but then eventually relenting and rekindling the relationship as it’s revealed he’s the biggest hypocrite of them all when it comes to love outside of marriage. Even as almost all of these relationships build with people they’ve just met and barely know, their own isolation leading to this impulsiveness, the unspoken rule is that bygones be bygones around the dinner table.
There’s the little details that create this emotional throughline, with the intentional theatricality of the performances which works in spite of themselves, or the fact that Jia-Chien’s actress, Chien-lien Wu, also portrays Old Chu’s dead wife (the strangest Electra complex in all of cinema as I’ve ever seen). There’s a contrast made between how Old Chu makes these gorgeous dishes at home looking annoyed and miserable the whole time, versus the chaotic clatter of his gourmet restaurant, and how much Jia-Chien enjoys cooking yet hides it from her prideful father. Every time there’s a shot of something being cooked, the sounds and the textures of it all physically hurt after months in quarantine. It’s food so luscious that it hurts, so much so that Jia-Chien even says my favorite line in the movie, “My memory comes from my sense of smell” when smelling one of her mother’s old recipes.
The film comes to a head at the very end, again in a way that feels like Ang Lee has topped Shakespeare at his own game. It’s only Jia-Chien and Old Chu left, having given the house with her to move in with a much younger neighbor and her small daughter that he’s grown attached to (and apparently has another child on the way with her). Jia-Chien is the one cooking now, Old Chu dutifully waiting for the meal. He has no sense of taste anymore, and only eats as a formality and the whole not-starving-to-death thing. Jia-Chien has made the recipes she had made for her former partner (the two since having fallen out after he abruptly marries another woman, every character in this film being deeply obtuse and impulsive). They start eating, and Old Chu begins to viciously insult her cooking, complaining that she’s using her mother’s recipe, that the ginger is too strong. They begin arguing for almost a minute before they both realize at the same time that somehow, letting Jia-Chien cook in this family home for the first time has returned Old Chu’s sense of taste to him. She stands up and takes his hand, the two almost in tears, and the film abruptly ends.
Again, it’s a very overtly theatrical scene and not even remotely realistic, but that’s not really the point, is it? It intentionally moves away from a more realistic portrayal of a scene for heightened emotion in that moment, the thing that’s been lacking for the entire film, a chef without a sense of taste being as ridiculous as a airline pilot crewing a submarine, being returned once Jia-Chien gets to cook where she’s always wanted to. I like that the film doesn’t take the usual route of having her secretly want to become a chef herself, the High School Musical version of this movie. “No, Jia-Chien, you’ll be a corporate executive and like it! Get your head in the game!” It’s just something she likes to do on her own time for the people she cares about.
(I do want to note that is no diss towards the High School Musicals, themselves some of the most accomplished films of their era. Sharpay rights forever.)
The emotional memory of taste is a strange little thing. All the time now, I’ve begun to start having my emotional memory return through it. I’m almost certain the next time I make my grandmother’s matzah ball soup recipe, it’ll create a similar effect in me. Taste and memory might as well be one and the same as far as Ang Lee is concerned.