No, this is not about cannibalism.
In a house in Taipei, far away from the hustle and bustle of the streets, Chu is preparing Sunday dinner, alone except for the animals that he kills for fresh meat and fish. Yes, this movie is about food and his name is Chu; let us move on. A life-long chef, cooking is his life. He is calm. He is at peace. That will not last when his three daughters arrive.
Jia-Jen is the oldest daughter. She is a high school chemistry teacher who has turned to Christianity after a relationship went sour. She is spending her Sunday at church. One of her church friends tries to act as a romantic matchmaker for her, but Jia-Jen is not interested in that. Jia-Chien is the middle child. She is the deputy director at a Taiwanese airline company. She is spending her Sunday at work before spending some time with Raymond, her ex-boyfriend turned friends with benefits. Jia-Ning is the youngest daughter. Still a university student, she spends her Sunday working at a…gasp…Wendy’s. All of the Chu daughters still live with their father, perhaps because none of them are married. Well, they sleep at the family house, but are often away as much as possible. There is very little interaction between the four people. The main exception is the Sunday dinner, or “the Sunday dinner torture ritual” as Jia-Chien calls it.
Jia-Ning’s coworker Rachel was supposed to cover for Jia-Ning for the Sunday dinner, since she had been late before. Rachel’s boyfriend, however, plans to take her to the beach. Jia-Ning cannot believe it. After all, didn’t they break up? They did, but Rachel says that she just wants to torture him a bit more. So Jia-Ning suggests that she torture him by making him wait for an hour, which Rachel thinks is a great idea. Later, Jia-Ning leaves to see Rachel’s boyfriend, Guo Lun, waiting outside. She tells him that Rachel will be an hour late and he starts to throw a fit. This is not the first time that she has made a fool of him. He knows that Rachel hates him, but he cannot help but love her. He blames neither her nor Rachel, but himself…for being unable to fight his addiction to love. It is really tragic.
Torture time. Jia-Jen says Grace as no one else really cares. There is a lot of food. The patriarch sits down and it is time to eat. He starts to say something, but stops suddenly. Jia-Chien has just tasted the soup and the look on her face suggests that something is off. She is reluctant to say anything, but eventually says that the ham was oversmoked. Maybe because her father is losing his taste buds. Chu angrily asserts that his taste is fine. Jia-Jen says that her school friend Liang Jin-Feng had called from America. Jin-Feng’s mother apparently hates it so much there that she is willing to jeopardize her green card status by returning to Taiwan. Jia-Chien speculates that Mrs. Liang could help her other daughter, Jin-Rong, take care of her young daughter Shan-Shan, but Jia-Ning, thinks Mrs. Liang will just cause more stress for everyone. Jia-Chien jokes that Chu will finally have someone his own age to talk to. Jia-Chien then tells the others that she has closed on a luxury apartment, (spending her life savings on the deal) and will be leaving as soon as construction is complete. There is little time to discuss this news as Chu gets an emergency call from the restaurant.
Chu takes a cab to the huge restaurant, opening the door to the taxi long before it has even stopped. He takes long strides through the enormous kitchen. Here, he is not father or Chu or even Mister Chu: he is Master Chu. There is a huge banquet going on right now to celebrate the wedding of the governor’s son. One of the ingredients in the principle courses fell apart once they got into the pot. Master Chu looks at them for two seconds before saying that they are fake. His solution is to concoct something on the spot. He gives it to his good friend and colleague Old Wen to taste. Wen gives it the okay. And the customers seem to enjoy it. The banquet is saved.
Sunday Dinner is over and the Chu daughters are cleaning up. Jia-Ning seems excited for Jia-Chien, but Jia-Jen is less so. She doesn’t know why…it might be because she should have been the first to move out, being the eldest. Jia-Chien believes that it is the looming specter of Jia-Jen having to take care for their father all by herself. She says that Jia-Jen has every right to be upset at her. Jia-Ning disagrees, saying that it would be a celebration if she were to be leaving due to getting married. Jia-Chien says that their father cannot stand her either, and that he does not need any of them around. He would probably be happier in a relationship with someone his own age like Mrs. Liang. Both of her sisters immediately shoot this down, saying that his one true love was their mother. Jia-Chien does not understand this, given all of her memories of the two of them were of them arguing. Jia-Jen insists that their love was based on traditional values, but Jia-Chien argues that it was just a war that ended when their mother died.
Speaking of Mrs. Liang, her daughter Jin-Rong stops by the house with Shan-Shan. While Jia-Ning plays with Shan-Shan, Jia-Jen and Jin-Rong chat outside, mostly about Jin-Rong’s mother returning. Apparently, Jin-Feng had threatened to divorce her husband if her mother had stayed. And, while Mrs. Liang disliked her White son-in-law, she hated the thought of both of her daughters getting divorced. Jia-Jen thinks that it is unfair to Jin-Rong to have to put up with her mother along with raising her daughter, working, and preventing her ex-husband from taking custody of Shan-Shan. Jin-Rong says that her mother had always wanted to be with her instead of with Jin-Feng, but Jin-Feng was the oldest, so she had the obligation. Jia-Jen says that it is similar to her relationship with her father. Jin-Rong counters that Chu takes care of himself and everyone else, unlike her mother. Jia-Jen responds that the Sunday dinners are not to last. Jia-Chien will leave soon and Jia-Ning not long afterwards, leaving Jia-Jen to take care of her father alone.
The banquet was a success…I suppose, though there is a lot of perfectly good dumplings remaining. And, instead of being put in the fridge or taken home, they are tossed in the trash. Symbolic. Chu still decides to stick around and chat with Old Wen over drinks. Lots of drinks. He insists that he is not upset at the prospect of his daughters growing up and leaving, since he will have a quiet life with them gone. Wen is skeptical, telling Chu that he is never satisfied with his current lot in life, regardless of how it is. Chu admits that he doesn’t understand any of them and does not want to. Let them leave.
While he had denied it in front of his daughters, Chu openly talks about having lost almost all of his taste buds, and needs Wen to judge the results of his cooking. Wen still says that Chu is the greatest chef in Taipei, and that his predicament is the food equivalent of that guy Beethoven. He tries to make a point about it, though, being drunk, the topic turns right to sex. As they get up to leave, Chu drunkenly continues the subject of food and sex being basic human desires. But he is getting old. Too old for sex? And now too old for food? If this is all there is, then how is he living the good life? Wen tells him that they are still alive and still cooking. That is good.
Monday arrives and Chu goes out jogging. Somehow…he sees Shan-Shan waiting at a bus stop surrounded by a bunch of adults, none of whom are her mother. He goes up to her and asks her why she is eating breakfast at the bus stop. She replies that there was no time for breakfast before going to school, so she just took the leftover dumplings that he made yesterday, but with the juice squeezed out. Chu offers to make her lunch, but she says that she cannot leave school, relying on lunch money instead of a lunchbox. And just like with the vehicle traffic, she disappears with the foot traffic going onto the bus.
Jia-Jen is teaching a class of inattentive boys. That is not true, some of them are looking at the blackboard. But it is telling how one boy can doze off despite her speaking through a microphone in a classroom that is not really big enough to require a microphone. A volleyball bounces into the classroom. She walks outside and throws the ball back to the new volleyball coach down in the field. She returns to the classroom to see a couple of boys struggling over a piece of paper. It is a love letter, though she calls it dirty. She crumples it up and throws it…near the garbage bin.
At a meeting, Jia-Chien presents her an argument to sweep up some plane routes from American and British airlines. The chief seem interested, but his newly graduated son wonders if they have enough planes. The chief chastises him as an idiot, which causes the young man to leave in a huff. The chief then introduces Li Kai, who had arrived late to the meeting. He “jokes” about his flight being delayed, which makes the other guys at the meeting laugh (after some subtle prodding by the chief), though Jia-Chien is not particularly impressed. The chief praises Li Kai having secured a flight route and says that he will be the company’s general in its next big battle.
Class is over for the day, and the boys rush over to the trash bin to read the love letter. Jia-Jen goes outside to wash her hands, though spends a bit of time looking at the new volleyball coach continue to play with his students. He dislocates his shoulder. Jia-Jen goes over to see if he is okay. Another coach comes over and snaps it back. Apparently, this is not the first time that he had had to do that.
Chu arrives at Shan-Shan’s school and…somehow…is able to just walk into her classroom. He tells her teacher that he has come with her lunchbox, despite her obviously already eating something. He pushes her lunch aside and puts four dishes on her desk. He claims that he did not have time to make a lot and that he did not want to make too much anyways, but any one of those dishes would have been enough for a kid. The entire class, including the teacher, quickly crowds around them. Whether or not any of them know about Master Chu’s reputation, this lunch that he has provided Shan-Shan is impressive.
School is out and Jia-Jen waits for the bus. And here comes the new volleyball coach riding a motorcycle and wearing sunglasses. He is really close to her. He introduces himself as Chou Ming-Dao. He asks her where she lives. Ho-Pei Road. He comments that it is a nice place, but she just calls it old. He would have offered to give her a ride there, hurt shoulder or not, but it is out of the way. He asks her to come to the big tournament next week and rides off.
Jia-Ning is on her lunch break at Wendy’s. She notices Guo Lun once again waiting for Rachel, not knowing that she had left an hour earlier. The two of them end up going to a food stall where they eat…not Wendy’s food. Well, Jia-Ning eats, Guo Lun is unwell…not because he is upset, but because he is suffering…because love is suffering…which means that Rachel must love him…because of the suffering. He is really deep. He finally starts eating as Jia-Ning says that Rachel told her that she does not love him at all. But then, he asks, why does she torture him so much if not for love? Jia-Ning argues that that is not love. She asks him when was the last time that he actually had a real conversation with Rachel about their feelings and about life. He cannot remember. It is all a blur. She tells him that his love is blur, that true love is being with someone with whom you can freely express your feelings. Guo Lun points out that he is doing that with Jia-Ning and sarcastically asks if that is true love, and she dismisses that almost immediately, though not quite immediately. And, for the punchline, silly Guo Lun gets his stinky tofu.
Jia-Chien is about to leave work when she notices Li Kai asleep in a chair at the receptionist. She goes over to look at him more closely. The receptionist says that he had flown straight from Paris and is experiencing jet lag. Apparently, she had been looking at him sleep too. Also, he was not quite as asleep as he had appeared to be.
It is night and the family is home…in their separate rooms…while cats are mating outside. Loudly. Jia-Chien comes into her room with some underwear. Apparently, their father got their clothes all mixed up while doing their laundry. She hears the cats and jokes that at least someone is having fun around here. Jia-Jen acts a little bit defensively over her spinster status and says that her love life is none of Jia-Chien’s business.
It is the next day and Chu walks Shan-Shan to school…or just the bus stop. In any case, they agree that he will secretly make lunch for Shan-Shan each day, so that she does not have to pay for it at school. And if her mother makes lunch for her, he will eat that instead. And Chu even agrees to make lunch for Shan-Shan’s best friend as well.
It is evening again and the chief stops by Jia-Chien’s office. He tells her that he plans to assign her to the Amsterdam office, making her vice-president in charge of all the operations, pending approval from the board. She hesitates; after all, she just put her savings into that new apartment, but the chief tells her that she might make a profit if she rents it out. Jia-Chien is so happy that she is in the mood for cooking. Her father will not let her steal his thunder in his own house, but Raymond’s kitchen is hers to command. So she goes over there with a bunch of groceries. She makes…a lot, as Raymond comments. Well, she learned to cook in a large restaurant. From Old Wen, whom she calls Uncle. All of her childhood memories are of cooking. And her father being so light and loving, particularly to her. And how she could play in the large kitchen all she wanted…until he made her stop. Raymond tries to teasingly replicate those nostalgic feelings, but Jia-Chien is not having it. The joy that she felt earlier is gone. The cooking is done. Now it is just the food and the memories.
A stomach issue sends Old Wen to the hospital, accompanied by Chu. Jia-Chien arrives not long afterwards. Wen jokes that it was due to Chu’s cooking getting progressively worse. Jia-Chien sits on the bed and gives Wen a hug and a kiss, something that we have never seen her give to her own father. And Chu notices from his chair several feet away. Wen’s attempt to bring up happy times from Jia-Chien’s childhood quickly turns to bickering between the two Chus. Wen tries to put a stop to it, saying that Jia Chien has become a success due to her father pushing her to focus on her studies. She should not hold a grudge against him; that he is proud of her, but just cannot express it. Wen says that Chu will have to express it at some point, else the repression will hospitalize him as well.
Pushing Hands from 1991, The Wedding Banquet from 1993, and this movie form what is often called the “Father Knows Best” trilogy by writer director Ang Lee. He also edited this movie, by the way. Along with sharing a few actors, Ang Lee’s first three movies shared similar themes of the generation gap and ambivalence towards Westernization. The first two, however, were set in New York City and dealt directly with the subject of immigration. In this movie, that story is backgrounded, with people only talking about their experiences in America and the Western influences affecting the city of Taipei and even Taiwan as a whole as opposed to just affecting individuals. It is unnecessary to see the other two before watching Eat Drink Man Woman, but it is interesting to see how the three movies approach similar subject matter from different angles, like they are in direct conversation with each other.
This movie is about a lot of things: food, family, love, tradition, the generation gap, and more food. Lots of food. One thing that seems consistent in throughout the movie is a breakdown in communication. Outside in the busy streets, the traffic looks crowded and chaotic. Yet, everything seems to go according to plan. People go in one direction. People stop so people going in another direction can go in that direction. People who need to change direction have to get into a position where they can do so and wait until they can. And there are people directing the flow of traffic. And it flows. Artless, heartless, mere strategy and muscle memory. Communication is simple and brief. Anything more than that can be too much.
It seems as if almost no one in this movie can communicate with others on a deeper level…or sometimes even surface level. The members of the Chu family may live in the same house, but they tend to avoid talking to each other unless it is necessary. They may justify this by not wanting the others to worry about the drama in their lives, but the end results are the others getting blindsided by suddenly revealed secrets. Characters keep key pieces of information from each other, resulting in either other characters being completely ignorant towards what they are going through or misinterpreting what information they have do have. The love letter in all of its pure emotion is treated as trash and then even its purity is called into question. Characters can be honest with each other only after getting drunk, and by that point their honesty is undermined by their inability to form coherent sentences. The simplistic title of the movie may be an attempt to describe itself in its most elemental terms, but it was said by a character who was drunk.
This lack of communication is present in the way that the movie unfolds. Any of the four stories could have served as its own 100-minute movie, with the details more fleshed out. But the movie has a very idiosyncratic manner in how it reveals plot points, character decisions, and their motivations. To devote more focus to a single story would have taken some of the fun with how the movie progresses and…maybe…reveal some of the seams of the story. The sudden lurches in an otherwise meandering plot may strike some viewers as cheating or a sign of bad writing, but I love it for the comedic tone. It shows that, while one’s trajectory may be predictable, one cannot pinpoint when or how one will hit any particular milestone, let alone when someone else will. Ain’t that life? No, I would probably not want this storytelling decision to be more common than it is, but it works here.
This lack of communication of course leads to misunderstandings. And the misunderstandings often lead to misery. This movie seems to contend that, while it would be nice to understand everything, one should not necessarily make one’s happiness dependent on fully understanding what is beyond one’s grasp. Yet it is easy to fear what does not understand, to rage at it, or dismiss it outright. Mr. Chu’s losing his sense of taste can be seen as a metaphor for how he feels like society is leaving him behind. He does not understand his daughters and he does not want to understand them. And while he does not outright condemn Jia-Ning working at Wendy’s he despairs for the future of traditional Chinese cooking in Taiwan, even though it is he himself has prevented Jia-Chien from pursuing cooking professionally and appears willing to take his own personal recipes with him to the grave.
Okay. So…uh…food. Taiwanese food is a unique blend of several cultures. There is the influence of the island’s indigenous peoples. There is the influence from the various groups of people who had migrated from Mainland China over the centuries. There is the fifty years of Japanese occupation. And then there is the influence from the Mainland once again from the huge migration after 1949. This last part is most likely what Mr. Chu thinks of when he thinks about the food that he cooks. This movie is a love letter (heh) to Taiwanese cooking, as well as a way to present it to the world. There are many different takes on Taiwanese cooking in this movie: the old-style of cooking of Mr. Chu and Old Wen in their huge restaurant, Jia-Chien’s amateur variant that is no less passionate or skilled, the more general restaurant variety, the comfort food of the stall, Jin-Rong’s not so great cooking, her mother’s even worse cooking, and whatever Shan-Shan’s class had bought. It is a part of their lives and part of their identity. And there are also plenty of Taiwanese customers at that Wendy’s.
With the exception of maybe one scene, meals in this movie are primarily for conversation, with eating coming a distant second. This is not simply due to the difficulty of filming scripted scenes of people eating, but the eating is beside the point. The moment of eating in the first Sunday dinner sets off a moment of tension between Mr. Chu and Jia-Chien, where the comments that he kind of forced her to make come off as attacks upon his ability to continue doing what gives his life meaning. The tasting of Mr. Chu’s food is not in the enjoyment of the food itself, but in validating him, such as with Old Wen and the wedding banquet.
The significance of the food in this movie seems to be less in the eating, but more in the making of the dishes. Cooking is done for the service of others and for the sake of cooking itself. There is maybe one time in this movie where a character cooks a dish with the intention of personally tasting it and we see only the other person eating. For sure, food is meant to be a metaphor for other things, but even in-universe, the movie states that the connection breaks down at some point. The opening sequence shows Mr. Chu spending all day preparing this meal that is way too much for four people. Part of this is the Chinese tradition of presenting more food than necessary to show off one’s wealth, but there is little reason for him to show off to his own daughters. A more practical explanation is that he and his daughters can put away the leftovers and eat them at a later date, though I am not sure that they will taste as great and he still ends up cooking during the weekday after his deal with Shan-Shan. A more character-based explanation is that cooking is the only part of his life that he still feels that he understands. The cooking is not an excuse for him to gather his daughters together for a weekly chat; the weekly chat is an excuse for him to cook way too much. A more story-relevant explanation is that he is used to cooking that amount of food due to his experience working in a restaurant, a habit that had rubbed off on Jia-Chien.
When Jia-Chien cooks too much for Raymond, she is not really cooking for him or for them together; she is cooking because she is happy and wants to do something that continues that happiness in a place where her father cannot stop her. For her, cooking brings back happy memories of her childhood. Unfortunately, it also brings back memories of a hope for a future that was never to be, thanks to the person who has forced her to cook outside of the house.
There is a half-stated commentary about the gendered politics of cooking in this movie. It is not really stated whether women are expected to do the cooking in the house. Jin-Rong and her mother have no men in their lives who could cook for them, so of course they cook sometimes, even though they are not very good. We do not see whether the men who are not cooks cook. However, the men who cook for their profession are said to be the greats. Even with his taste buds failing him, Mr. Chu is considered the best. So, of course there is a cooking hierarchy, with men at the top. I noticed that, of the dozens upon dozens of workers in that enormous restaurant kitchen, there were maybe two women who may have been involved in the cooking of food. There were plenty of women working as waitstaff and dishwashers, but pretty much all of the cooks were men, if not all of them. Jia-Ning “cooks” at Wendy’s and the woman who serves Guo Lun his stinky tofu may have also cooked it, but work in the high-end establishment is closed to Jia-Chien. Would Mr. Chu had acted this way towards a son who had shown a desire to become his culinary successor? It is unclear. But she cannot even cook in her own kitchen, as the professional man has made that his own territory. Barred from one of the domains of the traditional housewife, she goes the business route, which supposedly would be more financially rewarding. Yet, even though she is a high-ranking member of the company, she seems to be the only woman there of any rank. Would she have found success in the world of professional cooking? Maybe. Maybe not. In any case, it appears that she found that success through throwing herself into her work, with the prospect of a serious relationship nowhere in sight. And this as good a time as any to transition to the subject of love.
This movie is about love, yes, but it is a little difficult for me to call it a particularly romantic movie. It shows the fits and starts of relationships, but there is really only one scene that I would call romantic…maybe two if that one did not end up undermining itself. The movie treats romance the way that it treats the storylines in general, with a sense of humor that is gently teasing. The most obvious example is the relationship between Guo Lun and Rachel. Guo Lun is practically a parody of the sensitive, thoughtful, romantic type. Raymond may be the one in the art world, but Guo Lun is the one with the pretentious artsy fartsy storyline. To him, love is torture, so his girlfriend tortures him, starting with a rather extreme version of playing hard to get. Not ghosting, just being absent. The ultimate in communication breakdown. This sort of rom-com relationship philosophy is treated as a joke immediately, and its dissolution is barely deemed worth chronicling.
That is maybe the most overtly comedic treatment of a relationship, but the aforementioned idiosyncratic nature of the storytelling means that certain otherwise key story beats are completely skipped over in favor of throwing the audience off balance as well as the characters. This allows the different romantic subplots to go in unexpected directions or at unexpected speeds. We might realize that we did not understand what was going on…and that we still don’t. And that is okay. Love is not something that needs a high-minded philosophical drive behind it or some scientific equation. It sometimes happens we do not expect it and…sometimes does not happen when we do.
There is a sense in the movie that true love is in a precarious state. Extramarital affairs, casual sex, and divorce are becoming more and more common. The one constant is a pair of neighbors who express their love performatively through annoyingly loud karaoke sessions. This does not mean, of course, that love is dead or not worth pursuing, just that happy ever after is not guaranteed. And maybe it never was. To be together is to be squabbling. Jia-Jen and Jia-Chien have conflicting accounts of their parents’ relationship, with Jia-Jen calling it traditionally respectful and Jia-Chien calling it a war. It is not a coincidence that Jia-Chien, who looks most like her late mother (same actor), has the most tense relationship with her father.
The state of the family is also in flux. Either through death or divorce, almost no one seems to be married. And in a culture where a man is supposed to take care of his elderly parents and a woman is supposed to take care of her husband’s parents, neither is present. None of the men in the movie are shown to have a tie to their parents. And since the women are unmarried, they stay at home until they are. Jia-Jen has accepted her future as a spinster; as her younger sisters leave, she will remain to take care of their father, so getting married is out of the question. Married or not, Jia-Chien wants to leave as soon as possible. Mrs. Liang had been living with her eldest daughter and her husband in America, but returned to Taiwan to make life even more difficult for her other daughter. Understanding is not easy, love is not easy, family is not easy, keeping this article from going off the rails is not easy. Maybe it is worth it. Maybe it is not. Judge later; enjoy it now and savor it for as long as it lasts.
Wow, this one went on much longer than I had anticipated. I should probably stop here. Anyways, this is a really good movie. And look, it’s Totoro
Oh, one last thing: doesn’t this piece of music sound similar to the theme to Sex and the City, which premiered almost four years later?
WTF ASIA 108: The Chaser (South Korea: 2008, approx. 125 minutes)
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