Desire is in the Details: Eat Drink Man Woman’s Vision of Love

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) | MGM

Intertwining food and love is not a new concept. In art, to have one represent the other is common; everything from Dutch Golden Age paintings to Call Me By Your Name’s infamous peach scene has invoked this connection. But the love most often visually conveyed through food is a lusty love, romantic and sensuous. Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman presents a different kind of love represented by food: the food itself is still sensuously depicted—but the love is not. Lee’s presentation of food, established in the opening scene, is highly specific and immaculately detailed. This attention to detail is then echoed by the gestures of love throughout the film, linking the formal qualities of food’s depiction to Lee’s idea of love as an earned, deeply felt, intimate emotion built on care and respect.

The opening scene of Eat Drink Man Woman is nothing if not thorough. And while this may sound clinical, the resulting scene is sumptuous, not sterile. Here is food made tangible on screen, without taste, without smell, without touch; food that transcends being an object in a scene and becomes instead an object of desire for the viewer. The meticulousness is key to its sensory intoxication. The food here isn’t suggested. It’s not a hint of something, not a half-hearted rendering, not an approximation of something familiar. It is deliberate—conveyed through color and shape, and texture and sound—but also through a precise depiction of cooking methods, of deboning and washing and frying and plating. It sets the tone for the rest of the film but also stands on its own as a paean to exceptional cooking. Without the specificity of the filmmaking in this scene, including cultural specificity as it relates to the cuisine of Greater China, and without the excessive attention to detail and abundance of the meal itself, the love of food would not come across as strongly. It would not suffuse this scene and many after it, nor cultivate the same longing as it does by triggering the senses in this particular way.

The sequence is one hunger-inducing shot after another. Starting in the morning and ending after sundown, Mr. Chu performs a marathon of food preparation as ingredient upon ingredient is introduced, finally culminating in a banquet’s worth of food. The film is set in the thoroughly modern Taipei of the 1990s, yet his techniques are timeless. We see fish fillets with ridges of diamond cutouts dunked into sizzling oil; a long piece of squid meat, hollow and clean and white, sliced effortlessly by one of Mr. Chu’s many knives. Then glistening pork belly, cut into bite-sized chunks, each with a perfect ratio of fat to muscle. Followed by fresh, bright green vegetables being washed, crackling mushrooms frying, dumplings stuffed to the brim and meticulously folded, chicken stuffed into a porcelain dish to marinate, and so on and so on until Mr. Chu finally finishes the meal’s preparation.

The preparation of the food is also shot mostly in close-up, so texture and color are showcased. Mr. Chu begins by grabbing a live fish from a pot, slamming its thrashing body down on a cutting board and gutting it through its torso. He rips the halves apart, then washes and cuts it before tossing it into a roiling wok full of steaming oil. A similar process is seen with a goose carcass, and a live chicken, dragged in from the yard’s coop. It is grisly and unsentimental. And it is essential for the recognition of where food comes from, essential to appreciate the work Mr. Chu put into this meal and essential to conveying his traditional culinary style. The process is depicted in full, as we see the meal built from the elemental, raw materials, and become augmented by marinades, by the chili peppers Mr. Chu de-seeds and chops, by sauces made from the juices of the meat. Then they are steamed, sautéed, deep fried, as a row of restaurant-grade woks carries the fire below them to the ingredients inside. It is like a symphony, perfectly timed, and Mr. Chu is in full command of his kitchen. He works with an unparalleled skill and ease and a confidence that comes from decades as a chef.

However, part of the power of this scene comes from the straightforward manner of preparation. The sheer multitude of dishes and their quality renders them special, but they are not overly convoluted. There is no molecular gastronomy, nothing is deconstructed or topped with foam. That kind of artifice would be off-putting; instead Lee brings us closer to the food. We’ve likely seen these dishes (or something like them) before, remember the flavors, and the bliss of tasting them.

The reverence of this scene, as conveyed through attention to detail, is key to articulating Lee’s vision of love in Eat Drink Man Woman. There is desire, but that desire comes from extraordinary respect. It comes from the slow build of watching the meal come together, from Mr. Chu’s dedication as he spends an entire day cooking, and the intimacy that comes from cooking familiar dishes. The resulting meal for his three daughters, Jia-Chien, Jia-Jen, and Jia-Ning, is an elaborate expression of care for his family. Those qualities of love saturate the film, and inform the love felt for people and places that is cultivated throughout the film’s formal qualities and content.

Mr. Chu’s methods of preparation invoke intimacy in another way, beyond their comprehensiveness, extending to create a feeling of cultural specificity. The depiction of types of dishes and their preparation is not just detailed, it is detailed in the traditions of a particular culture. The food he makes is representative of the traditional style of southern Chinese cooking, combined with local inventions that are customary to Taiwan. These are classic dishes, like fried squirrel fish, hot pot, and crab dumplings, and are prepared in the most classical style, starting totally from scratch. The familiarity of these dishes and how they represent this region might make this scene, and the rest of the film, particularly resonant for Taiwanese or Chinese audiences, in Asia or abroad. It provides an opportunity for audiences historically under-represented in the global film industry to see their own world reflected back to them.

While food is a universal topic, Eat Drink Man Woman emphasizes the Chinese concept of food as social function, the central place it holds in the formation and maintenance of relationships. In a family that has increasingly less in common with each other, the weekly dinner is a place to come together, and for Mr. Chu to reassert his role as head of the family

Food, then, is the gateway to exploring this cultural specificity in other areas of the film. With the opening sequence, food anchors us in a certain image of Taiwanese culture, only to have that portrait of a more traditional lifestyle clash with particular signifiers of the modern Taiwan. Eat Drink Man Woman works as a time capsule for a specific era and place, preserving the image of Taiwan, a picture of prosperity and encroaching Western influence, as it hurtles toward the 21st century. With Jia-Chien’s ill-fated investment in an apartment complex called “Little Paris in the East,” we see the perils of the rapid, un-regulated development of Taiwan. With Jia-Ning’s teen pregnancy, shifting family values. With Jia-Jen’s Christian beliefs and Jia-Ning’s after-school job at Wendy’s, the entrance of Western institutions into Taiwanese life. By establishing the “Sunday dinner” format early on, Lee ties all of these developments back to food. Nearly every dinner is replete with a big, shocking announcement from one of the family members, the introduction of a new fact of life into the static custom of the Sunday dinner. In tightly shot frames of the Chus at the dinner table, these uncertainties coexist with the tradition of sharing meals, creating an uneasy space in which the new disrupts the old.

Cultural specificity, in its own way, is a kind of love. It is a love for the place in which one lives or grew up, a love of every little thing that makes that place special. Anything less than absolute fidelity would be a betrayal of it. To recreate the place one loved—the homes, the people, the streets and traffic, and of course the food—and project it onto the big screen, is the ultimate expression of affection. In this act the creator is sharing it, with people who know this world and those who don’t. To the former, there’s kinship, a collective remembrance of riding a motorbike through the city, or how all the old ladies used to dress back then, or getting late-night noodles at a tiny stand. To the latter, there’s pride in showing this place, in its strengths and faults, showing its worth as an object of cinematic depiction, as well as an invitation: come into my world, understand me. By depicting a Taiwan in flux, Lee’s love shines through even more. This isn’t an idealized space, a fictionalized past made to look rosier than it actually was. It is complicated and contradictory and still trying to figure itself out, yet still deserving of a faithful rendering.

Beyond the role that Taiwanese cuisine plays in creating a culturally specific film, the care and attention lavished on food translates into love, typically familial. This is where Eat Drink Man Woman becomes more universal; making food for someone as an act of love is a symbol that transcends borders. Throughout the film, Mr. Chu makes lunch for the young daughter of a family friend, Shan-Shan. Her mother, busy with work, often doesn’t have time to make meals, so sends her with money for lunch. When Mr. Chu sees this, he begins intercepting Shan-Shan at the bus station, bringing her stacks of metal containers filled with food he prepares specially for her, elaborate three-course meals for a primary schooler. He gradually takes on the role of a father figure for Shan-Shan, expressing how much he cares through what he knows how to do best.

In another scene, Jia-Chien shows up at her ex-boyfriend’s apartment with a bag full of groceries and tells him she felt like cooking. She proceeds to make a multi-course dinner of her favorite dishes, among them some of the very first dishes she learned to make in her father’s restaurant kitchen. The care and love Jia-Chien shows here through her cooking is not for her ex-boyfriend, who’s she’s been seeing in a “friends with benefits” arrangement. The affection is more for her childhood, for the traditional recipes her father and his business partner Uncle Wen taught her. It’s apparent when she opens up about how her father would make her bread bracelets and rings from dough, and when her ex takes a piece of dough and asks her to try it on, she tells him to stop playing. These are cherished memories of a time in her life that needs to be protected and remembered through her cooking now that she has grown up.

Even love that isn’t visualized through food avoids an impulsive, head-over-heels characterization, and is instead quiet and unassuming. Jia-Ning and Jia-Jen’s relationships with their respective boyfriends evolve throughout the film, starting as friends or colleagues and slowly becoming something more. These characters take time to get to know one another, helping each other through breakups and loneliness, until finally falling for each other. Their love isn’t expressed through food, but comes from the same place of care and respect as Mr. Chu’s cooking for Shan-Shan or Jia-Chien’s recollection of her childhood in the restaurant.

It’s contradictory to think of food so sensuously portrayed as a conduit for such an unflashy sort of love. But what Lee is trying to draw our attention to is the fullness of the picture the camera paints of this food: the exhaustive documentation of all the ingredients, the complexity of the process. He wants the audience to desire the food, but also marvel at the work that goes into it. It’s no wonder then that the love Lee focuses on in the film—from the love of Taipei, to all of the characters’ romantic relationships, to familial love—is gradual love, steady love, deep-in-the-memories love, love that remembers the little things. It’s the type of love that food elicits in many of us. The love found in childhood memories recalled, of meals brought to you sick in bed, of holidays shared and birthday dinners celebrated, of learning traditional recipes. The love that comes from sharing warmth with someone. From start to finish, Eat Drink Man Woman, in its humor, sincerity, and affection, captures that.