Eat Drink Man Woman (referred to as EDMW) is described by the majority of reviewers as a film about a clash between Father and Daughters, between Tradition and Modernity. Few have commented on Chu as an old man. EDMW is structured like a large puzzle composed of many small puzzles each one complete and each one having a special theme. What I am looking at in this post is the Old Man theme. Chu has been a widower for the last 16 years and has three adult daughters who live with him. Chu Jia-Jen – the eldest (D1), Chu Jia-Chien – the middle (D2), Chu Jia-Ning (D3) – the youngest.
Chu the Master chef: is established in the credit sequences when he is seen cooking for the ritual family lunch in his kitchen. This kitchen intrigued me when I first saw the film. It does not have the character of a home kitchen or a restaurant. It is really a way of conveying how expert Chu is in his skills. 30+knives and cleavers hang on the wall, the table is laden with a variety of containers from cooking vessel, to beautiful serving plates. Stewing pots, frying pans are evident. In the yard earthenware from small to very large, hanging lengths of onions, herbs and the chicken fill the space.
In this environment we see Chu using many ways of preparing and cooking a variety of food. He catches a live fish from its bucket, descales it, fillets it, flours it, fries it. He gets hold of a chicken in the coop, under the eyes of a group of frogs, and then through a complicated of steps cooks it and arranges it in a china serving plate. The speed at which he slices meat or vegetables, the rapid stuffing of parcels is fascinating. A scan of the wall shows a series of professional photos testifying to the many different stages of his career. More than a man cooking a meal for his three daughters, this montage demonstrates all the skills needed to achieve the title of Chef that we realise Chu has attained.
This is confirmed by an urgent call for him to rescue a situation at the restaurant where he is the Chef. He leaves everything and rushes out. We are then introduced to a restaurant with an impressive number of tables, and a huge kitchen with a crowd of busy staff. He is greeted by a rather agitated maitre d’hotel who helps him put his chef’s uniform and implores him to save the day. A group of cooks and Old Wen chef gather around listening with respect to his instructions on how to repair the mistakes. The maitre d’hotel is relieved.
Chu’s friend: Old Wen is a family friend and permits Chu to express himself freely. When a young kitchen assistant is rude to Chu it is Old Wen who restrain Chu from reacting aggressively. Over a drink Chu declares that he hopes that the daughters leave home so he can have a quiet life. He is depressed, his sense of taste is getting worse and worse and he quotes: ‘your appetite is done when the dish is done. Eat, drink, it pisses me off. Is that all there is in life?’ Old Wen replies with another saying : Good sound is not in the ear, Good taste is not in mouth and good sex … God knows where ……When Old Wen dies Chu is devastated and with D2 takes care of the last rites.
Chu’s role as Father: In the mornings after his daily jog he is seen waking up the three daughters. He does the cooking, the washing up, the laundry. He even puts their clothes away though not always to the right sister. He cooks the Sunday lunches that he considers as a ritual to be preserved for the three daughters. The table is laden with mouth-watering dishes and everybody shares. He does not talk much but is very sensitive to the slightest expression on their faces. Chu looking worried starts a sentence: In the past two days … but he stops when he sees the imperceptible facial expression of D2 and asks Chu: something wrong? D2: no it is fine – Chu questioning face – D2: nothing a …nothing – Chu: say it – D2: the ham is over-smoked – D1: it’s fine. Father probably forgot to taste it D2: or his taste is getting worse – Chu: my taste is fine. He leaves the table rather upset. In his absence, the daughters talk about Mrs. Lian, mother of their friend Jin-Rong, who is back from the USA unable to adapt to the exile. Mrs. Liang is a smart old woman, very talkative. As the daughters comment of the possibility that she will provide companionship for the father. He is back . Chu: like I have time to gossip after taking care of you three …these past two days… Seeing D2’s’ expression: What now? D2 interrupts: I have a little announcement to make and declares that she purchased a modern new apartment and would move away. Chu comments laconically about the wisdom of investing in property. When the property company loses all of D2’s apartment and savings Chu does not comment except to say that she can still live in his house.
HOW THE SISTERS LOOK AT THEIR FATHER: The sisters consider the ritual lunch as a chore. In the absence of their father called urgently they discuss the situation. When D2 announces that she will leave soon to live in her flat, D1 is sombre. D2 understands that it is not fair to leave D1 to care for the old man but he can barely stand the sight of her. She lives in a different world. D3 very down to earth does not see a problem and that this is bound to happen. While D2 understands her sister’s upset she carries on saying the father does not need them anymore. D2 declares that what he really needs is a companion his own age like Mrs. Liang . D3 : we’ve tried setting him up and its been a disaster the only true love in his life was our mother. There follows an argument about the marital relationship of their parents seen differently: D1 maintains that the relationship was based on real old-fashioned respect and values while D2 asserts that it was an old-fashioned war that ended when Mother died.
This is followed by the scene of D1 and her close friend Jin-Rong debating the situation. They compare the friend’s mother Mrs. Liang who wants to live with her daughter and. D1 ‘same here father wants to live with me’. Jin-Rong : ‘it is not the same. Chu is much stronger than my mum. He takes care of himself and others’. D1: ‘my Dad needs attention too. I will take care of him for the rest of his life. Friend: ‘I am sure he does not want that.’ (Once again we see Lee’s skill in irony in dropping hints that will make sense later in the film.)
However D2’s attitude towards her father changes completely when in hospital to visit Old Wen she catches a sight of her father. She starts worrying about him: Is he all right? She accompanies him to Old Wen death rituals and supports him in his grief. We learn later that Chu visit to the hospital was to get a good health testimony for his marriage.
Chu’s interest in children: on his jogging exercise Chu meets Liang Jin-Rong and her daughter Shan-Shan. He finishes up by walking Shan Shan to school and providing lunchtime food to the children. A very funny scene shows Shan-Shan in class taking orders from a crowd of kids for their lunch. It transpires that her mother and grandmother are very bad at cooking.
Old man retires: The restaurant manager visits Chu to persuade him not to retire “ The restaurant needs your presence”. But Chu’s response: “Do I just stand in the kitchen until I rest in Peace, like Old Wen? “ and argue that good food is not appreciated anymore. “Fortunately, I do not plan wasting my whole life on this stuff.”
Chu’s sexuality: Openly his friend Old Wen declares “you are as repressed as a turtle”. Sexual images can be interpreted in a cut from D2 making love to Chu handling a chicken and a very brief shot of Chu rather tense introducing a couple of two sticks in the mouth a fish. If an interest in his body can be interpreted as a revival of sexuality, we can see that the scenes of massages and hot tubs appear towards the end of the film.
A major twist in the narrative provides, fun at the expense of Mrs. Liang and resolution of the problem of care of the Father when the daughters leave home. Chu has always been very tolerant of Mrs. Liang constant chatter. At a formal family meal, after an excruciatingly embarrassing time and many drinks Chu announces his intention of selling the family house and marrying Liang Jin-Rong. Everybody is shocked but Mrs. Liang is hysterical and collapses on the floor. Jin-Rong reassures the daughters that Chu will still love them.
Chu’s New Life: In the empty old house, D2 has prepared as expertly as her father a meal. D1 and D2 cannot make it and Jin-Rong is heavily pregnant in the new house.
The point I tried to make is that Chu’s character as an old man is extremely well drawn by Lee. His narrative is full of twists and turns irony and fun. It has not been easy to disentangle all the characteristics of Chu as a sensitive laconic old Chef. The expertise in his profession, his unconditional love for his daughters, his secret love, the effect of his friend’s death on his decision to retire. To make the puzzle complete, a similar analysis of the other characters may reveal a detailed and sensitive film that need more than one viewing.
The film may stand as a moral tale about how in old age men need a young woman, but this is another story .