Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, and Kuei-Mei Yang in Eat Drink Man Woman
Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray received honorary Oscars, but Ang Lee is the only Asian-born winner of the Oscar for best director -- for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012). The two awards suggest something of Lee's versatility, the former is a love story between two cowboys, the latter a fantastic tale about a boy cast adrift with a tiger, adapted from a bestselling novel. But then, Lee's filmography is all over the map: Since he returned to the United States after starting his directing career in Taiwan, he has made a Jane Austen adaptation, Sense and Sensibility (1995); a story of family dysfunction in Connecticut, The Ice Storm (1997); a Civil War-era Western, Ride With the Devil (1999); a martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000); a comic-book movie, Hulk (2003); an erotic thriller, Lust, Caution (2007); a story set at the fabled 1969 rock festival, Taking Woodstock (2009); and his latest, a critical and commercial failure that experimented with radically new film technology, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016). If it's possible to discern in that almost random collection of films the kind of personal vision that auteur theorists believe is essential to the greatness of a director, I don't see it. He began with a personal vision, however, in the films he made in Taiwan after receiving his MFA in film at NYU: a focus on the conflict between the traditional and the new in Asian culture. Eat Drink Man Woman is the third of these, after Pushing Hands (1992) and The Wedding Banquet (1993), in what has been called Lee's "Father Knows Best" trilogy. Sihung Lung, who played similar roles in the other two films, is Chu, master chef at a large hotel restaurant, a widower with three unmarried daughters. The oldest, Jia-Jien (Kuei-Mei Yang), is a schoolteacher who converted to Christianity after a failed love affair; the middle daughter, Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), is a workaholic airline executive in line for a promotion that will get her transferred to Amsterdam; the youngest, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), is still in school and works part-time at a Wendy's, where she commiserates with a co-worker whose boyfriend is inattentive -- largely because he's fallen for Jia-Ning. They all gather regularly for a Sunday dinner prepared by their father in a bravura opening sequence that details the skill and technique with which the chef creates his classic dishes. But the dinner is something of an ordeal for the daughters, each of whom is preoccupied with her own love life, as well as being concerned about the health and future of their aging parent. It's a well-plotted film, written by Lee with Hui-Ling Wang and James Schamus, whom Lee met at film school and who became his frequent producer and co-writer. Tim Squyres is the film editor whose work shines in the opening food-preparation sequence and in the intercutting of the daughters' several stories, and the cinematography by Jong Lin gives us an effective traveling shot through the crowded kitchens of the hotel restaurant. But the movie stays on a superficial level when it comes to examining the lives of the Chu family, especially when you compare it to another family drama by a Taiwanese director, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2000), whose characters have a depth lacking in Lee's film. With his versatility and technical prowess, Lee reminds me most of a classical Hollywood director like William Wyler, who gave us brightly polished entertainments as varied in tone and genre as Roman Holiday (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), and Funny Girl (1968), but without showing us anything of himself as an artist.