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Eat Drink Man Woman

Olive Films // Unrated // February 24, 2015
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 3, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Twenty years before Jon Favreau delivered a vibrant fusion of food porn and family conflict in Chef, Ang Lee served his own version of that recipe in Eat Drink Man Woman, his last smaller-scale production in his native country before making a name for himself through American indie dramas and bigger-budget spectacles. Touching on the two-way devotion between parents and children, the demands of professional dedication, and the crossed wires in building romantic connections, it takes a skilled, endearing glimpse at Chinese culture alongside copious shots of fine cuisine being prepared. There's a philosophical flavor there that's easy to appreciate when drawing the unsubtle parallel between preparing food and maintaining relationships; that said, Lee's film ultimately overcooks its ideas in the melodramatic end product, where his desire to elevate emotions and keep the audience guessing about the directions it's headed leads to rushed developments that undercut its genuine message.

Eat Drink Man Woman doesn't waste any time getting the audience to salivate and marvel at culinary technique: the opening shots reveals aging professional chef Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung) preparing an elaborate, multi-dish meal in a rustic kitchen in Taipei. Only later do we learn that the effort actually goes into a weekly dinner with his three daughters, all of which still live at home with their widowed father. Each of the women has their own outlook on their living situation: the eldest, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), took on a stern parental role following their mother's death and having her heart broken; the middle-aged daughter, Jia-Chien (Wu Chien-lien), yearns to leave the house in further pursuit of her airline-industry career and her no-strings romantic endeavors; and the youngest, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), still has her own daughterly innocence as a student and fast-food employee. All their lives are shaken up by romantic prospects and personal conflicts as their father deals with becoming increasing irrelevant, both as a cook without functioning tastebuds and as a devoted parent.

Along with co-writers James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, director Lee savors the character development in Eat Drink Man Woman, allowing the family's stifled conversations over dinner and their individual life experiences to gradually shape their tics and preferences. For the most part, the film exists as separate, concurrent stories that reveal how they're all changing and distancing from one another, whether it's through unavoidable life experience or deliberate consideration, particularly from the viewpoint of the two eldest daughters and their contrast in lifestyles: independence and servitude. Lee gives the women distinctive, flawed, yet strong personalities that draw those watching to embrace their individual perspectives -- Jia-Jen's defeatist seclusion, Jia-Chien's tentative ambition, Jia-Ning's opportunistic romanticism -- enriching each gathering at Mr. Chu's table with added dashes of context from their lives, without bias towards the paths they choose either towards or away from their father.

Unsurprisingly, food gets used as a consistent analogy to the duality of life's pursuits in Eat Drink Man Woman: the inborn passions and dogged work one puts into their existence that often goes unappreciated. Complimented by flavorful shots of Mr. Chu preparing his involved meals, director Lee confidently allows the developments in their lives to take shape around the parallel drawn to Chu's attachment with the culinary world, down to the overt metaphor of his fading palette. Wonderfully authentic performances from the entire Chu clan make one identify and empathize with their idiosyncrasies, their desires and concerns, building an endearing rapport to a point where you might start to anticipate what they'll do next in their complicated lives. That especially applies to Sihung Lung as Mr. Chu, whose melancholy frustration with his daughters and the restaurant effortlessly endears one to his personality while the family adjusts to themes of independence, death, and future obligations.

Have to hand it to Ang Lee and his writers, though, because Eat Drink Man Woman thoroughly shakes up anticipations about where the plot's headed in the final act, as if they made a checklist of expected directions the story might take and systematically avoid as many of 'em as possible. While there's something to be said about the unpredictable decisions people make when coping with heavy personal conflicts, especially involving their self-determination, the way things spiral out of control here leans more towards soap-opera theatrics than sincere drama, typically without the intent of garnering laughs. Abrupt, intentional character-defying decisions and some daft revelations make one question the integrity of what's going on, and not really in a quirky comedic way. Lee concocts these layered characters with heartfelt, genuine issues involving romance and independence, then blends them all together with an overpowering resolution that neglects the subtle zest that made the film so irresistible at first. He still sent out an enjoyable dish, fore sure, but a little restraint would have gone a long way.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Olive Films serves up Eat Drink Man Woman in a sustainable but uneven 1.85:1 framed, 1080p AVC treatment. Many scenes are mere steps away from being beautiful, sporting rich black levels, appropriately warm skin tones, and fine sharpness and dimensionality that goes beyond the source quality and vintage of the film. Most of the food photography is spectacular: the bubbles of oil, the organic details of fish and red meat, and the soft texture of dough or tofu hit delectable peaks. A few scenes are marred by washed-out or imbalanced contrast, rendering gray/off-color black levels, as well as overly pinkish-red skin tones against the aged source. Heavy film grain encroaches on a few sequences, too, while mild dust and speckles are present throughout. It's not an entirely winning Blu-ray transfer; however, the positive moments do, indeed, outweigh the negatives, coming together into a mostly stable and attractive presentation of the low-budget '90s Taiwanese film.

Nothing else on the menu in the audio department other than a 2-channel Master Audio presentation of the original Mandarin language track, which largely gets the job done without many moments really worth noting due to the unadorned nature of the film's sound design. If pressed, I'd say the banging of utensils against the metal kitchenware and the sizzle of food in boiling fluids offer a dash of memorable, organic precision, while a few touches of atmosphere -- the falling of rain, the chatter of a busy restaurant kitchen, and the echo of a PA system in a school -- deliver a moderate amount of atmosphere across the two front channels. Mostly, however, the track revolves around properly balancing the persistent dialogue with the range of musical fluctuations, to which Olive's soundtrack does with satisfying buoyancy and clarity. Bright yellow English occupy the bottom of the screen in a grammatically well-handled translation.

Special Features:

None. Not even a crumb.

Final Thoughts:

Ang Lee's dram-com Eat Drink Man Woman packs in a lot of heart and soul, feasts for the eyes, and more than a few surprises. The first two make for a splendid, endearing depiction of a widower chef and his three distinctly strong daughters, addressing complex themes of freedom, duty, mortality, ambition, and finding the right romantic partner in a family environment. Exquisite performances and a robust eye for visual delights hallmark the lion's share of the film, relishing Chinese culture and universal parental themes along the way. It's in those surprises, however, that Lee's story gets a bit iffy, guiding the saga of the Chu family in a few sudden, peculiar directions that don't jibe with either its dramatic sensibilities or its sense of humor. With that in mind, it's a flawed but admirable and enjoyable experience from one of contemporary cinema's stronger emotional storytellers. Olive Films' Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty decent, but the absence of special features -- even those included on previous DVD presentations -- is a bit of a bummer. Still, given the scarcity of the older DVD disc and the uptick in audiovisual quality earns this one a firm Recommendation.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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