Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/3/09 w/ Additional Edits.
After a couple of acclaimed films with 1992's Pushing Hands and 1993's The Wedding Banquet, the Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee was clearly becoming one of the new rising directors in the Asian film scene. Though both films were shot in the U.S. and got considerable attention, Lee was considering to go back to his native Taiwan for his third film. While his previous films dealt with alienation and homosexuality, themes he would explore in later films. His third film was a personal tale about a semi-retired chef dealing with the death of his wife, his loss of smell, and the lives of his three adult daughters. The film is entitled Yin shi nan nu (Eat Drink Man Woman).
Directed by Ang Lee with a script he co-wrote with longtime collaborator James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling. Yin shi nan nu tells the story of a semi-retired chef dealing with the changes in his life while losing his sense of taste, dealing with the death of his wife many years ago, aging, and his three daughters growing up. Meanwhile, his three daughters face their own personal ventures in life as they each deal with love in a different way as well as their own goals. Starring Sylvia Chang, Sihung Lung, Yu-wen Wang, Chien-lien Wu, and Kuei-mei Yang. Yin shi nan nu is a wonderful, enchanting film from Ang Lee.
Semi-retired chef Chu (Sihung Lung) is making a feast for Sundy dinner with his three daughters. His eldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-mei Yang) is a school teacher who is also a Christian as she is unattached following a broken heart nine years earlier. His second daughter Jia-Chen (Chien-lien Wu) works as an airline executive making deals and such while has a casual affair with her ex-boyfriend Raymond (Lester Chit-Man Chang). His youngest daughter Jia-Ning (Yu-wen Wang) is a college student who works at a fast food restaurant with Rachel (Yu Chen) while often meeting Rachel's boyfriend Guo Lun (Chao-Jung Chen), who is always waiting outside. During dinner, Jia-Chen makes an announcement about getting an apartment while making subtle criticism over the food believing her father has lost his taste buds. Chu tries not to be angry but is called upon by his colleague Old Wen (Jui Wang) to come in and make dinner for the governor's son at the wedding.
While Chu is out, his divorced neighbor Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) arrives with her daughter Shan-Shan (Yu-Chien Tang) as she is friends with Jia-Jen as they talk about things changing in their lives. With Jin-Rong's mother Mrs. Liang (Ah Lei Gua) set to return from the U.S., Jin-Rong feels like her mother is going to interfere though she finds comfort coming to Chu who treats her like a fourth daughter and Shan-Shan like a granddaughter whose food he makes for her are a hit at her school. With Chu still coming in to a kitchen he works on occasionally, the lives of his three daughters start to change. Jia-Jen finds herself being attracted to the new school gym teacher named Ming-Dao (Chin-Cheng Lu) while Jia-Chen meets a new co-worker in Li Kai (Winston Chao). Jia-Ning starts to hang out with Guo Lun as an attraction develops. Then when Old Wen becomes ill, things start to unravel in the lives of Chu and his daughters while changes occur for Jia-Jen through love letters and Jia-Chen getting a promotion.
Mrs. Liang becomes attracted to Chu, Chu has other problems to deal with while Jia-Chen's time with Li Kai reveals a story that might relate to Jia-Jen. During a dinner conversation in which Jia-Ning reveals some big, life-changing news, Jia-Jen has a conversation with Jia-Chen about her former boyfriend that reveals to be Li Kai. Li Kai is being confronted by Jia-Chen as he reveals something that Jia-Chen has trouble believing. With Chu's life filled with changes and overwhelmed, he finds himself hanging out with Mrs. Liang as Jia-Chen begins to make decisions of her own life as well as what she really wanted to do. Even as both Jia-Ning and Jia-Jen are having some breakthrough moments in their love lives as a big feast involving their lovers and extended families has Chu making a grand announcement of his own.
The film is about many themes yet all of this comes together in a weekly feast where people gather hopefully to talk to each other about their problems and such. Yet, there's always an event for announcement for families member and such. What the film is about really is life changing through a man and his three daughters as they each face through crisis of identity, aging, ambitions, and love. The script Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Wang Hui-Ling definitely revels into many themes while the story gives each character as well as the Jin-Rong character some stories for each of them to unveil. Yet, the core story is about Chu and his daughters. For Chu, still mourning the loss of his wife as well as feeling disconnected from his daughter has caused him to lose his sense of taste.
At the same time, unable to communicate through his daughters in even a simple conversation, he uses his mastery in the art of cooking in creating lavish meals with great detail despite the loss of his taste sense. He goes to Old Wen for conversations as it's often through alcohol as Chu as they talk about many things. When things in his life starts to unravel, he finds some comfort in making lunches for Shan-Shan in secrecy though Jin-Rong finds out that Chu had been eating the lunches she made for Shan-Shan with amusement. When Mrs. Liang arrives, he often has to hear her talk as everything she says is with lots of criticism about this and that in a motor-mouth manner.
While there isn't much development in some of the minor characters, they do get moments to shine including Mrs. Liang as the focus is on Chu and his daughters. Jia-Chen has the biggest story as her original ambitions was to be a master chef but fell by the wayside to become an airline executive. That loss of original ambition and her notice by her father's diminished sense of taste has caused tension between her and her father. While she has inherited his cooking talents as well as his attention to detail, she also has her late mother's stubbornness. She is unattached to anyone only to engage in a casual relationship with Raymond until she finds herself attracted to Li Kai, who also shares her frustrations in working as an executive. Jia-Chen's story arc is the one with the most interesting development as she sees and hears things about her own family that troubles her. All of this forces her to question her own life and ambitions as well as the decision to take a promotion far away from her family.
Though the story arcs of Jia-Jen and Jia-Ning aren't as big as Chu and Jia-Chen, they each get enough moments and depth for the audience to be interested in. Jia-Jen is a repressed woman who believes she will be the one to take of her father in the long run while devoting her life to being a Christian. When she meets Ming-Dao, sparks happen that is increased by a series of love letters while some truths about what happened to her nine years ago are unveiled through an outside source. Ming-Dao represents the man who can pull her out of her repressed persona while Jia-Ning is a just a young woman going through a growing phase. Meeting Guo Lun every time she steps out of work leads to one through another as it leads to a series of moments where she is unaware that she stole the boyfriend of a co-worker. This also leads to another life-changing event of her own that would make her the first to leave the family household.
Lee's subtle, enchanting direction is truly mesmerizing in its location shots of Taipei and all that is going on. The film moves leisurely yet he uses transitions and such to make sure how much time has moved on. At the same time, he keeps the camera moving with steadicam shots where the audience walks through the tense, chaotic kitchen that Chu occasionally works on. At the same time during the feasts, the camera moves for dramatic effect to add momentum to what effect the scene is going to have. Lee clearly gets to do more technically while having time to let the acting and drama unfold with some humor added to the mix. When Lee focuses on the food that is made throughout the film, there's a something magical that goes on that keeps the viewer very attentive without losing insight to the story. Lee's overall direction is truly intoxicating in every frame he captures every scene with such beauty as he creates a film that is dazzling.
Cinematographer Jong Lin does excellent work with the gorgeous, exterior look of Taipei at night while the day time, in its varied look in weather, also has something that is colorful. Lin's shots of Taipei truly is amazing as it's a very different world from the typical Asian cities in Japan and China. The interior shots are also great, notably the nighttime feasts where it's colorful but also straightforward as Lin's work is superb. Lee's longtime editor Tim Squyres does fantastic work with the editing in the use of smooth transitions, dissolves, jump-cuts, and mostly, fade-outs to help move the film from one time transition to another. Squyres also does great work in the use of repetition to give the film a day-to-day to feel to convey the idea of time moving on as Squyres' work is phenomenal.
Production designer Fu-Hsiung Lee does great work in the look of the place that Chu works for as well as the school that Jia-Jen works at and the home of Chu. Chu's home is definitely filled with a lot of space and a backyard that he houses chickens and such while his kitchen is definitely filled with lots of things. Costume designer Wen-Chi Chen does excellent work with the costumes from the more conservative look of Jia-Jen, the casual look of Jia-Ning, and the modern look of Jia-Chen. Another notable costume comes in the more lavish look of Mrs. Liang who wears these dresses that expressive her large personality. Sound editor Steve Hamilton does fine work with the sound to capture the chaos of the kitchen and exuberance of the school that Jia-Jen works at. Music composer Mader brings a unique yet whimsical score from traditional, Asian music to play to its drama while playing a more piano-driven, Latin-like melody for some of the film's humor and as accompaniment to the Mrs. Liang character.
The cast is excellent with many of them appearing in Lee's previous films. Small but memorable roles from Chuen Wang as Jia-Chen's boss, Shih-Jay Lin as the boss' son, Man-Sheung Tin as the restaurant manager that Chu and Old Wen work at, and Yu Chen as Jia-Ning's co-worker Rachel. Other notable small roles like Lester Chit-Man Chang as Jia-Chen's ex-boyfriend Raymond and Yu-Chien Tang as Shan-Shan are memorable with Tang bringing lots of joy in her scenes. Chin-Cheng Lu and Chao-Jung Chen are excellent as the respective suitors of Jia-Jen and Jia-Ning with Lu as the more charming Ming-Dao and Chen as the melancholic, book-reading Guo Lun. Jui Wang is great as Old Wen who assists Chu at the kitchen hall while being an uncle of sorts to Chu's daughters. Winston Chao is really good as Li Kai, an airline executive who befriends Jia-Chen while carrying some things in his past as he sympathizes with Jia-Chen over the boredom of working at an airline.
Sylvia Chang is fantastic as Jin-Rong, a single mother finalizing a divorce while always turning to Chu for advice while dealing with her motor-mouth mother's criticisms and overbearing advice. Ah Lei Gua is great in a small role as Mrs. Liang, Jin-Rong's mother who likes to talk and talk about anything while trying to nab Chu for herself. Yu-wen Wang is very good as Jia-Ning, the youngest daughter who works at a Wendy's dealing with school and her first real love as she comes to term with the changes in her life. Kuei-mei Yang is excellent as Jia-Jen, the oldest daughter turning to Christianity for balance while falling for a gym teacher who helps loosen her up as she finds freedom from her duties at home. Chien-lien Wu is phenomenal as Jia-Chen, the middle daughter dealing with all of the things that are going on in her life. Wu's performance is really the standout as she encompasses all of the drama that goes on as her character tries to have her own life only to realize how much is changing around her family.
Sihung Lung is brilliant as Chu, the master chef who is dealing with things in his life that are troubling him. The death of his wife many years ago, the loss of artistry in cooking food, his sense of taste, and his own daughters. Lung's performance is full of life when he is playing cook to the young Shan-Shan whose lunches he makes become a hit at her school. Even as he plays a great listener to the ongoing jabbering of Mrs. Liang as Lung is really the heart and soul of the film.
Released in 1994, the film was a huge hit with critics while becoming a hit in the art house film circuit. Its acclaim helped the film receiving Foreign-Language film nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Award. Ang Lee meanwhile, was asked to direct an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Sense & Sensibility for its star and screenwriter Emma Thompson which he did next. In 2001, a remake of Yin shi nan nu was released as Tortilla Soup starring Hector Elizondo, Elizabeth Pena, Paul Rodriguez, Jacqueline Obradors, Constance Marie, and Raquel Welch that received a decent reception from critics and audiences.
Yin shi nan nu is a enjoyable, intoxicating, and heartwarming film from Ang Lee and company. Led by a superb cast including Sihung Lung and Chien-lien Wu, it's a film that delves into various themes that audiences can relate to while salivating the dishes that are made throughout. Fans of Ang Lee will no doubt put this as one of his best films that stands up among his other revered films like Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain. In the end, for a film that has universal themes of aging, values, and ambitions with a side of some tasty dishes that will make anyone's mouth watering. Yin shi nan nu is the film to see from the great Ang Lee.
Ang Lee Films: Pushing Hands - The Wedding Banquet - Sense & Sensibility (1995 film) - The Ice Storm - Ride with the Devil - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - The Hire: Chosen - Hulk - Brokeback Mountain - Lust, Caution - Taking Woodstock - Life of Pi - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - The Auteurs #19: Ang Lee
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