(Author’s Note: This was original published on Fandor on February 14th, 2016, but they’ve deleted their archives.)
Is there anything more romantic than watching the face of your date as the image of Rosamund Pike slitting Neil Patrick Harris’s throat is projected up on the big screen—on your first outing, no less? Now that’s an ice breaker. My date was seated to my right as I scribbled down notes for the first fifteen minutes, unaware of the context of our meeting until a good fifteen minutes into the film. The ambiguity with which our outing was initially imbued may or may not speak to a larger idea of the cultural shifts in courting, but to watch Gone Girl on a first date is really, contrary to public perception, a romantic thing. The jittery ebullience of the evening doesn’t really change, since the context is the same, and though we didn’t go out again, not because of the film (our post screening discussion was lively and impassioned), there’s a hurdle one overcomes when watching Gone Girl—or even other works like Antichrist, Scenes from a Marriage, etc.—it’s a weird, inexplicable sense of intimacy and understanding one has when watching a film like this, let’s call them Anti-Romantic films. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Picture it: two adults, male and female, walking around in a book store discussing the importance of death and misery in life. They seem like smart, well-adjusted people. Now picture this: two adults, again male and female, driving from Chicago to New York and discussing whether men and women can just be friends. These two mildly philosophical conversations come from two very different films, despite the former often being cited as inspiration for the latter. The two films in question are Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, two films that both take place in New York and both explore the nuances within relationships.
As often as When Harry Met Sally is said to be a rather obvious homage to Woody Allen’s “first mature film”, and to some extent Annie Hall’s companion Manhattan, the two films seem too different to really be considered similar at all.
Annie Hall’s anxiety ridden relationship between comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and the tennis playing/amateur photographer/night club singer Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) is far more realistic in the way it explores the trials and tribulations of dealing with an adult relationship. Allen seems to make it obvious that as good as Singer and Hall are together, they aren’t meant for each other. They’re both pretty emotionally stunted as people, neither of them having fully matured, as adults sometimes do (or don’t). It is an adult relationship, one that’s seen in a very non-linear fashion. Instead of seeing the direct development of the relationship, we get thrown into the middle of it, almost as if Allen expects us to know who these people are. This could be very risky, but instead it pays off. While we may not be as terribly cynical or anxious as the pair are, Alvy Singer and Annie Hall are us. It’s the kind of relationship any adult can identify with. Those same kinds of fights and arguments and wishes for perfection have all been brought up and dealt with, and Allen brings up these topics with knowledge and insight.
When Harry Met Sally…, which was written by Nora Ephron, portrays a different kind of relationship. We have the development from stranger to friend to best friends to lovers to strangers to people in love. It’s kind of a long cycle, and it remains relatively realistic…except when you get to the sex. Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) isn’t as anxious as Singer, but he seems just as deadpan and pessimistic (just consider his thoughts on death), and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) is a different kind of high maintenance compared to Hall. Harry and Sally continually meet by chance and then, after several years, become best friends. Up to here, the relationship resembles many a male-female friendship you see. But when the tow have sex and they stop talking, it’s here that the relationship turns into the stuff of fiction. Yes, the sex and the following cold should is fine, but getting back together is not. While it’s an intricate and romantic portrait of a friendship, the ensuing relationship is not as realistically portrayed as in Annie Hall.
It can be summed up pretty easily: the intellectual, cynical, snobby, pessimistic, embittered singleton in me loves Annie Hall. But the hopeless romantic, the one who loves everything sweet and sappy, adores When Harry Met Sally just as much. But the two films are too different two really compare to one another. Their formats, their view of love, and their general aesthetic. While When Harry Met Sally is punctuated by pretty scenes in Central Park, Annie Hall’s nicest moments, with cinematographer Gordon Willis, are intermittent, sometimes so spontaneously pretty and quick that you barely notice. The format of the films are different. Even though Annie Hall is told in a somewhat autobiographical way with Allen often breaking the fourth wall, When Harry Met Sally is told through various time intervals with intermittent interviews with older couples and their life stories. If anything, aside from its New York setting, the most blatant homage and only real similarity between the two films is the opening titles. Plain white font against a black background.
Both films most definitely have their merits. Annie Hall is more overtly cerebal and sarcastic in its humor, as Woody Allen’s humor tends to be. When Harry Met Sally however is more along the lines of the witty banter that seems to be a contemporary update of the back and forth lines that filled the films of Howard Hawks. Both, however, are excellent films, extremely funny, and utterly romantic. It had to be both of them.
Annie Hall: A
When Harry Met Sally: A