Eat Drink Man Woman
Sometime during the early to mid-1990s, Ang Lee, who had not yet won either of his two Academy Awards for Best director, made food about film. Or film about food? Actually, though, the three films that were included in the delicious thematic trilogy were about the role of the father. Loosely known as the “Father Knows Best” Trilogy, the films were Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). The films illustrate the clash between traditionalism and modernism in regard to ‘family values”. (It might be fair to say, if a little mean, that Ang Lee has as many daddy issues as Steven Spielberg.) This last entry of the film, however, contains one of the most mesmerizing scenes not only in films about food or Asian cinema, but cinema itself. Its ability to make the audience salivate alone is reason to watch the scene on a loop, as well as its insight into one of the main characters of Lee’s film.
The film begins with a cavalcade of people on their motor bikes and in their cars making their way to work in the noisy city of Taipei. But off in a more serene area is our Father of the film, Mr. Chu. In this short scene, almost everything you would ever need to know about Chu and his daughters is somehow displayed, even if his daughters are never on screen. But what makes it so enticing is how simple it all seems. Lee’s direction is a notched into a high gear that is beautifully subtle, high gear in the way that Mr. Chu’s character appears on screen and, without saying a word, seems fully formed from the very first frame he is in.
Mr. Chu, portrayed by Kuei-Mei Yang, is preparing for Sunday dinner, which for his family is a weekly tradition. His experience as a master chef is portrayed in the deftness of his movements. There’s no trace of unsureness or even struggle. For him, this is all part of the routine. There are barely any hints of fatigue or worry, despite the film’s subsequent storyline. Cooking is what he has put his heart into, and you can see it with every movement. It is cooking that brings him joy, as the audience sees a smile rise on his face and a jaunty movement of the knife as he minces meat on the cutting board.
What else is it that makes this scene so transfixing? Is it the food itself and its representation of lost tradition? How the food will come to be the much needed bridge between the traditionalism of Mr. Chu’s upbringing and the modernism of his daughters, now going off to live their own lives? Or is it because it looks so damn tasty? Actually, I believe it is not only both of these things but a third element: Ang Lee’s direction. Lee, who also wrote the screenplay, is most assured here, watching as Mr. Chu prepares dinner. It is when he is observing food and its function that he works best, as evidenced by the film itself (which utilizes film as a passing metaphor for aforementioned clashes ‘taste’), as well as his countless other films that use food as a focal point of communication and connection. From the Thanksgiving dinners in The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to the titular Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee exerts his filmmaking expertise most often through food. This scene in Eat Drink Man Woman thus resonates so deeply with viewers because the preparation means something to Mr. Chu.
Sunday dinner is essentially the only time that Mr. Chu gets to talk to his daughters: the eldest is a religious school teacher nursing a broken heart; the middle is a savvy airline executive, and the youngest works at Wendy’s. Throughout the film, the girls are illustrated by their inability to really communicate their thoughts through words. The only way they can truly articulate themselves is the best way and the way they learned how to do that; through food. And even though they hate Sunday dinner, where ideas and ideals of the girls must be deferred to that of their father, it is their chance to awkwardly establish that they are grown up and must move on. (Note the juxtaposition of the kind of food that Mr. Chu makes and his youngest daughter makes. How much different could you get?)
Such is the precision that this scene is directed that even the knives give insight to both Mr. Chu and the culture he is so married to, out of tradition. My Chinese teacher at school noted that Asian cooks, particular of Chinese cuisine, are known for having entire walls of knifes, each with used with specificity. That Mr. Chu can be so precise with food is an interesting aspect of he and his family: food is his language, but when it comes to grilling his daughters about their lives, he doesn’t know which way is up. Yet, the sound, the sight, and, yes, even the smell of his work at hand is proof that he can communicate to his daughters. Perhaps the over smoked food might be less of an indication of his age and more an allusion to how weary he is as a father, not as a chef. Smoking food is, like cooking in general, often serves a precise function in terms of taste, which in itself relates to the soul and to the emotion. With food so structurally integrated into the narrative as a representation of language and emotion, the connotations of smoked or overcooked are thus indicative of Mr. Chu’s character and the secret he is carrying.
Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman is one of my very favorite films and yet I hear no one ever talk about it, not even on best of decade lists. It is in this film that Lee grasps how food serves meaning in life, and it is executed with simplicity and beauty in the opening scene: an example of mastery in two professions.
My list of the favorite 101 films of all time continues! See Part 1 here!
21. Casino Royale* (2006) | Directed by Martin Campbell
Bond’s gritty return to the screen is a reboot in the same way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a reboot: a character reinvention where we get to see his naked psyche taking place in a real world where, in the end, he doesn’t win. The back to basics approach strips Bond of the cartoonish gadgetry of the last forty years in favor for the gritty realism that didn’t make the character popular beforehand. Prior to the readaptation of Ian Fleming’s novel, Bond was an escape, a super hero for the Cold War. In a post-9/11 world, though, and in an age where formulas have to be reinvented, that James Bond with a jetpack just wouldn’t cut it. So, we trade in the special attaché case in favor of a case study, of Bond, his villain, and his Bond girl. This is all subtle enough so that most viewers probably wouldn’t take as much note of it, but it’s still there. The cold metal armor that covers his heart is melted by Vesper Lynd (the elegant Eva Green), and Bond faces ethical decisions and must reign in his ego against the Number, in league with a certain terrorist organization. It’s Craig’s honest portrayal of a cold killer who finally comes to terms with what he does for a living that makes the film so spectacular. Oh, not to mention the superb direction (from Martin Campbell, GoldenEye helmer), the great action sequences (oh, bye Venice; oh hey free running!), and the intense card playing. I know that those sequences are often complained about it, but, when has poker playing been so intense? Bond is reinvented with a new origin story, and yet, without a doubt, we know his name and we know his number.
22. Cast Away (2000) | Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Zemeckis made most of his career for action, sci-fi comedies like Back to the Future (which I hate, by the way) or sappy walks through history like Forrest Gump. But Cast Away may be the best example of his direction, his ability to set up a scene, and his chops as a visual storyteller. For the most part, it’s Tom Hanks stranded on an island. Simple though it may sound, the mostly wordless film concentrates on how isolation affects us, our need for companionship (as evidenced by Wilson), and our struggle to survive as human beings. Tom Hanks’ performance in this is one of the best performances from Nicest Guy in Hollywood to date, at once embodying Robinson Crusoe and Charlie Chaplin. His friendship with a beach volleyball, Wilson, contains some of the most tender and memorable moments in cinema.
23. Charade (1963) | Directed by Stanley Donen
With the colors of Singin’ in the Rain and the macabre wit of Alfred Hitchcock (perhaps The Lady Vanishes), Charade is a jovial and jaunty thriller with exceptional humor and thrills. There are some obvious brushstrokes taken from the Bond films, with the storyline strumming with spies and duplicity, which is a little ironic, since Cary Grant had been offered the role of Bond for Dr. No. It’s the lighthearted wit that makes the film, the connection and chemistry between Grant and Audrey Hepburn superb. And, don’t worry, I have no idea who Cary Grant’s character is either, and I’ve watched it at least 50 times.
24. Chungking Express (1994) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai’s glorious Chungking Express is pop art in the best way possible. Taking its cues from popular romances, nostalgic music, and color drenched, kinetic camera work, the film, despite being an artistic masterwork, actually was made more as a commercial film. It just goes to show that when you have an artist behind the camera, anything is possible. The film is comprised of two stories, both following rather lonely people, who obsess either over the past or what has yet to even happen. Regardless of how superb and beautiful this film is, I kept thinking of one thing throughout viewing this film: “Wow, we Asians are awesome at wallowing in self-pity.”
25. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s film is all sorts of lovely. A story of faith and serendipity, it brings together people who continue to see things that really could not be possible, or even plausible. But they are. Through tremendous special effects, moving performances, a stellar score from John Williams, and, of course, a wonderful role from French New Wave auteur François Truffaut, the film transcends the science fiction genre and makes a film full of emotion. The subject matter initially sounds kind of frivolous and silly, but with its character driven story, it’s anything but that. There’s a surprising amount of faith embedded in the film. Dreyfuss, against the odds, maintains that what he’s seeing must be real, and seeks to find it. The finale of the film is spectacular. The film stands out as one of the best Spielberg has ever made.
26. Clue (1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Jonathan Lynn’s comedic gem Clue was made before making movies out of board games was cool. Similar to (what I consider) the lesser comedy mystery parody Murder by Death, Clue takes your favorite characters from the Parker Brothers board game, brings them to life, and makes them do outlandish, hysterical things. It’s probably not as self-aware or as deliberate a parody of mysteries as Murder by Death, but what it lacks in that meta-humor is a terrific script and a spectacular ensemble. Madeline Khan’s deadpan deliveries as Mrs. White, Martin Mull’s indignant Colonel Mustard, Lesley Ann Warren’s slinky and sardonic Miss Scarlett, and Tim Curry’s brilliant/bumbling butler are absolutely superb. With Clue, it’s not just a game anymore.
27. Dancer in the Dark (2000) | Directed by Lars von Trier
Provocateur Lars von Trier makes a musical! Yes, my friends, the man behind the devious allegory of Dogville, the satanic glory of Antichrist, and the End of the World character study Melancholia made a musical. With Icelandic singer Bjork. Taking advantage of Bjork’s child-like persona, von Trier employs her to play a slightly naïve Czech immigrant living in Washington in 1964, slowly going blind. Saving money little by little for her son’s operation as she works in a factory, she takes solace in imagining her world as a musical. In that way, it’s a little like Chicago. But what von Trier does with a musical is subvert a musical’s typical job to manipulate the audience emotionally. An unsaid rule of thumb for a musical is that it must be sentimental and happy and sad, etc., the music often working as emotional cues for what the audience is supposed to feel. Lars von Trier turns that on its head and subverts that sentimentality, making Dancer in the Dark one of the most emotionally manipulative films ever made. I say that as a good thing. The moment that Bjork’s childlike Selma and her life start going downhill, there’s no stopping. It’s relentless. It gets to a point where you don’t know how much more depressing, sad, and, yes, melancholy the film could possibly get, and then jumps past those expectations. But it is nonetheless a triumph of feeling, rather than acting for Bjork, and directing for Lars von Trier. With very Bjork-ish music (she wrote the songs), and interesting Dogme95-esque camera work, Dancer in the Dark is the best slap in the face that musicals, and the people who love them, could ever get.
28. Death Proof (2007) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s loving ode to car chase films like Vanishing Point and Gone in 60 Seconds (the original one) gets the flack of being “lesser Tarantino”. It’s not as narratively flashy or as experimental, it’s not as visually compelling (so they say), the character’s aren’t as interesting, the dialogue isn’t as good, it’s like an episode of Friends directed by Tarantino, and the complaints go on. On the contrary, the fact that Tarantino reigns himself in, making a rather understated film in comparison to his other works, is refreshing. And what the film does have is an intense car chase on par with Bullitt and The French Connection. This is Tarantino’s girl power film, the closest he’s ever come to making a “women in prison” movie. It’s fun, and the characters are as articulate as ever. My favorite part of the film is the second half, in which Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, and Zoe Bell kick ass. Tarantino provides a wonderful soundtrack along with a great car chase sequence.
29. The Devil Wears Prada (2006) | Directed by David Frankel
It isn’t exactly the typical chick flick you would come to expect from the dozens or even hundreds that have been made, and it’s different in the way that it a) treats its “villain” and b) treats the fashion industry. Meryl Streep’s peerless portrayal of the Devil as Editor in Chief is far from just Streep being bitchy and demanding. There’s that, which is undoubtedly fun to watch, but Streep, in all her glory, is able to provide a duality and vulnerability to the character. Miranda Priestly is still a villain, and she rarely remains sympathetic, but she is at least multidimensional. Secondly, it treats the fashion industry with respect. Going in, we’re given the same perspective that most people in the audience would assume: fashion is stupid and overly expensive. “And they all act like they’re curing cancer or something. The amount of time and energy¡¬ that these people spend on these insignificant, minute details, and for what? So that tomorrow they can spend another $300,000 reshooting something¡¬ that was probably fine to begin with¡¬ to sell people things they don’t need!” However, we, the audience, are enlightened as to what it is: a theoretical, conceptual business of artistry. While Runway, the Vogue like magazine Anne Hathaway’s Andy works at, may focus on the marketing, we are given insights into the artistic side of working in fashion. Also, Emily Blunt is perfect as Miranda’s first assistant, Emily, whose bitchery rivals even that of her boss.
30. Diabolique (1955) | Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Clouzot’s masterful piece of suspense, mystery and horror would eventually give inspiration to numerous directors, including Alfred Hitchcock for Psycho. Clouzot perfected the art of creating tension with The Wages of Fear, and it looks and feels even better in Diabolique. In this rather Gothic horror, camera positioning is everything. Mise-en-scene is of the utmost importance. The planned murder of the bastard of a headmaster as a private school by his wife and mistress, the entire film is built around tremendous suspense. But it’s the ending that will give you a heart attack.
31. District 9 (2009) | Directed by Neill Blomkamp
I was surprised at how quickly District 9, which might be at first glance just be an action sci-fi flick but is far from it, jumps into “political allegory” mode. Less than four minutes into it, the audience is given a look at the societal discrepancies between aliens, or prawns, and humans and their subsequent segregation and ostracism from society. With a wallop of an introduction, the film focuses on one man, originally hired to send eviction notices to the prawns living in District 9, and his transformation into a prawn, his desperate attempts to fix this, and the help he gets from a prawn who can fix the mother ship that can bring them back home. The documentary style filmmaking is an intriguing narrative addition, but it’s Sharlto Copley’s sporadic, improvisational style that brings an incredible amount of realism to the film. This isn’t just a sci-fi film, or even something loosely disguised as an allegory, it’s a sad story of self-actualization and acceptance. This film moved me like almost no other film has ever done.
32. Dogville (2005) | Directed by Lars von Trier
I believe the original intentions of von Trier’s Our Town from Hell were to make a film just to piss off the United States. Von Trier, through all of his diabolical genius, accomplished far more than simply angering Americans; von Trier paints a nasty, but important, portrait of America’s hypocrisies and shortcomings. Utilizing minimalist set design, the little town of Dogville is the nice heart of America. Nicole Kidman, whose performance is superlative, plays Grace, who is America’s gung ho idealism. Almost an ironic exploration of self, through Grace’s “arrogance”, she reveals Dogville’s teeth and dark soul. It’s infuriating, long, and exhausting to watch, but it’s an unrivaled experience, and an honest look at America’s tendency to sweep things under the rug.
33. Down with Love (2003) | Directed by Peyton Reed
Reed’s colorful romantic comedy is a treat, but Down with Love serves up something more than just nostalgia. A critique of the contemporary romantic comedy via the use of techniques reminiscent of the sex comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson, every line of dialogue is about the Battle of the Sexes, drenched in sexual innuendo. Ewan McGregor is great as the handsome philanderer and Renée Zelwegger is fabulous as proto-feminist type trying to establish herself as a bestselling author. Even better than the leads are supporting Sarah Paulson as a go-getter editor and David Hyde Pierce as the editor in chief for the magazine McGregor works for. The Battles of the Sexes is hardly over, so let’s get ready to rumble.
34. Dr. No (1962) | Directed by Terrence Young
When the James Bond franchise began, it didn’t lapse into the boring and trying formula that’s become associated with the series. Instead, it was a stricter form of escapism, as similar to any spy movie about the Cold War as anything. Dr. No is one of the best action spy movies to come out of the ‘60s. Of course, it wouldn’t be anything were it not for the charisma of Sean Connery. He’s charming without being annoying, sexy without effort, and cheeky without being silly. Dr. No ends up being a fascinating, action packed adventure.
35. Drive (2011) | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn’s pop culture infused, postmodern existential character study is a captivating film. It looks great, and Ryan Gosling portrays the Driver with expressions that are at once discernible and unreadable. We feel like we know him. With the neon drenched cinematography, every frame is a work of art. It’s a flashy, pop work of contempo art. With its ‘80s-esque pumped soundtrack, the turbulent and shocking bursts of violence, the neon drenched cinematography, and the love story at the center of everything, the film shifts between being completely original and out of left field and being “Camus Behind the Wheel”.
36. Eat Drink, Man Woman (1994) | Directed by Ang Lee
Ang Lee presents Food Porn and Families. I might be exaggerating a little, but Eat Drink Man Woman, a film about relationships, family, love, and maturing, is gorgeous to look at and to watch. Especially the food scenes. As much as that opening scene is mouthwatering to look at, Lee offers a careful examination of a group of women who are growing up and finally becoming independent from their widowed father. Very humorous and insightful, Lee continues to prove himself an expert at looking at familial subjects. It’s delicious.
37. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) | Directed by Michel Gondry
Kaufman once again explores the complexity of the mind, going through the memories of one Joel Barrish, as he attempts to erase his ex-girlfriend completely. The exploration of pain, love, and how memories affect who we are as people is stunning, genius, and heartbreaking. Both Jim Carry and Kate Winslet play against type, Carry taking on a more serious, somewhat anal and insecure role, while Winslet is goofier, epitomizing the annoying pixie quirky girl. Discovering the people who’ve affected us the most is a journey of self-discovery and it has never been more potent than in Gondry’s visually beautiful film.
38. The Exorcist (1973) | Directed by William Friedkin
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has been championed as one of the scariest films of all time, and rightfully so. From Linda Blair’s head turning role as a young girl possessed by an evil demon to the even more horrifying subtext regarding religious control, ideology, and homophobia, … did I lose you? Okay, sticking to the most obvious things, philosophically focusing on faith and viscerally focusing on… pea soup, the film gives a sucker punch with every viewing. Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and Jason Miller also give terrific performances. It’s a film that sounds just as scary as it looks as well, having won an Academy Award for Best Sound. Based on William Peter Blattey’s novel, any day is an excellent day for an exorcism.
39. Fanny and Alexander* (1982) | Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Once stating, “The Stage is my wife and the cinema is my mistress”, Bergman’s tribute to the stage and to imagination is one of the greatest films ever made. Fanny and Alexander is gorgeously photographed, textured, and visualized. Though the theatrical cut of three hours is more than graceful, the work of true perfection is Bergman’s original five hour cut for TV. As joyful and eloquent as Bergman has ever been, the semi-autobiographical film about the beauty of youth and imagination transcends cinema altogether. I’ve made it a new tradition to watch the first episode of the TV cut of Fanny and Alexander every holiday season, as the 90 minute episode contains the best Christmas scene ever. Oh, yeah, that Christmas scene is the entire episode.
40. Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 (1940/2000) | Directed by Walt Disney/Roy E. Disney
Gorgeously experimental and beautifully realized, music and animation come together harmoniously in Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. The films use two artistic mediums of expression in segments to embrace emotion, story, and the artistry of creating animation and creating music. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a standby, of course, but “Rhapsody in Blue”, featured in Fantasia 2000 clocks in at my favorite segment from the two films. Using Gershwin’s gorgeous music to paint a picture, literally, of New York as expertly as Gordon Willis and Woody Allen did in the opening of Manhattan. Combining the two mediums and having them worked together, complementing one another at every beat, comes together beautifully, making for a memorable experience on the screen. Fantasia is a treat for both the eyes and the ears.