Saturday, April 22, 2017

Asian Audient: Eat Drink Man Woman

This is the next installment in Asian Audient, my monthly cinematic tour through the great continent of Asia.

Didn't I say I had plans for a trip to South Korea in April?

I did, didn't I.

Well, despite having four solid choices for movies I wanted to watch -- five if you include Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden, but I consider that a bit too recent for a series like this -- I couldn't find any of my candidates easily available to source. True enough, I could not find Bong Joon-hoo's Memories of Murder (2003), Kim Jee-won's The Good, the Bad, The Weird (2008), Lee Chang-dong's Poetry (2009) or Park's Lady Vengeance (2005), the only film in that trilogy that has still eluded me, available for streaming, iTunes rental or from the library. And yes, I know there are plenty of other Korean movies I haven't seen. But after this I just felt a bit defeated, and moved on to China.

Actually, that decision was made sort of passively as I came across Eat Drink Man Woman in the video section at the library. It's considered to be Ang Lee's breakthrough, as it was immediately followed by Sense and Sensibility, but I've never seen it. Lee is, understandably, a director who interests me quite a bit -- I've seen every film he's made since this movie, which came out in 1994 -- so I thought this would slot in nicely as April's film. I'd seen two straight films made in Japan, and a return to greater China -- which includes Hong Kong, and in this case, Taiwan -- was the obvious step in the absence of a ticket to Seoul.

Before I start to tell you about my experience of watching it, I'll tell you about the dinner I had to accompany it. I wish I could say it was some nice spread of steamed Chinese dishes, like the ones we see in this movie, but it was more appropriate than that for this particular blog series. I had, and enjoyed, our grocery's pre-packaged "Asian Salad." I thought that seemed about right, as Woolworth's seems to have as little ability to distinguish between the countries of Asia as I do, if we're going only on the broad title of this viewing series.

Eat Drink Man Woman immediately struck me as a likely take on King Lear, as it involves an older man (Sihung Lung) and his three adult daughters (Kuei-Mei Yang, Chien-lien Wu and Yu-Wen Wang). However, the dynamic appears to be more of a coincidence -- or rather, one of a handful of fairly common compositions for a nuclear family -- because only a few references on the internet explicitly link Shakespeare's play with Lee's final movie before coming west. I don't think the plot details mirror Lear either, though to be honest, I don't remember Lear all that well, having only read it once and having never seen it performed. In any case, Lee's film is certainly not a tragedy.

It actually reminded me a bit more of the last movie I saw in this series, Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring, as one of the central plot points involves an adult daughter caring for her aging father. In this case, though, it's not something sought after. The eldest daughter, Jia-Jen, worries that if her two sisters leave home, she will be saddled with the responsibility for their aging father, one of Taipei's greatest chefs. And this is a realistic possibility, as the middle daughter (Jia-Chien) has just bought an apartment in a fancy new complex, and the youngest (Jia-Ning) is impetuous and a poor fit for domestic responsibility. The story basically follows all four characters on their journey through present-day Taiwan, both in their interactions with each other and in their romantic and other social entanglements that function as independent storylines, often involving their work.

I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn't have been, about how conventional this film actually is. Lee is not an abstract storyteller, so explicit repetitions of major plot points and reinforcements of character relationships is probably par for the course with his work. Occasionally these struck me as a bit on-the-nose, but I have to admit they were also helpful, as it can be difficult to orient yourself (sorry, bad choice of words) in foreign language films without some additional help at the start. Lee is very obliging in giving that help.

And conventionality does not mean it wasn't worth my time. Far from it. I really liked Eat Drink Man Woman, which felt so familiar to me that I got overwhelming senses of deja vu throughout. I feel like there's a movie out there that mirrors this movie's details almost exactly, probably something that came after it, actually. I just can't quite figure out what that movie is. I even scanned AllMovie's helpful section devoted to related movies, but did not see the title I was looking for. I suppose it reminded me somewhat of The Joy Luck Club, which came out only a year earlier, but that's probably only a superficial similarity as they both involve family dynamics between Chinese characters. (Though Eat Drink does also make frequent reference to the west, mentioning characters who live in America and making heavy suggestions about how American culture is changing Chinese culture). It may just be that tightly structured stories with familiar character arcs tend to resemble one another, when made by people who really know how to do it.

And Lee is one of those people. We recently talked about Lee on an episode of my podcast on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, in which one of the others argued that Lee has many very good films but no great ones. My co-podcaster also argued that he had no bad ones, though I thought the film we were actually discussing qualified as bad. I also do think he has a few great ones. The point is, he's really good at making solid B+ or A- movies, and Eat Drink Man Woman is another one of those. It doesn't do anything flashy from a technical standpoint, which differentiates it from Lee's future work, but otherwise it fits in pretty well with his continuum of films. Which is kind of odd to say in and of itself, as Lee's career has been characterized by a constant changing of genres and moods. He's never made two films that directly resemble each other, but with a few exceptions both good and bad, the common thread has been that B+/A- level of quality.

What more to say about the details of Eat Drink? Probably not a lot, though not in a bad way. It's a really humanistic look at the way the three daughters are trying to make their way in the world, fumbling through life with good and bad decisions, and the ways they are tempted by love. It also nicely contemplates aging and the sacrifices one makes. And it also lovingly showcases the food made by both the chef and his middle daughter, who secretly would prefer to be a chef than her high-powered job as an executive at an airline. Watching the dumplings being twisted into existence and vegetables steaming to perfection, I really wished I had something to eat other than my "Asian Salad."

Okay, so how will we handle this Korean outage going forward?

I will source at least one of my Korean films, but I don't know when, and I don't want to even predict what I might view for this series in May. I have, however, arrived at a logical way to structure the rest of this series. I figured it makes the most sense to break down the 12 months, four of which have already elapsed, this way: Four movies from China (which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan), four movies from Japan, and four movies from other countries. I've already gotten two movies each from China and Japan, leaving two more for each. So now I need to scrounge the likes of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and others for the four other picks ... with expected support from Korea, of course.

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