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Strange Bedfellows: Ang Lee’s Investigation of Food, Sex, and Culture

Sean Forrest

“ Shi se xing ye: Food and Sex—the basic nature of human beings” (Rawnsley, 226). - Ancient Chinese saying

The Chinese hold claim to one of the world’s oldest, largest, and richest cultures. It is one of stringently particular taste and expectations. Rooted in Confucianism, Chinese culture often does not waver from the traditional manner of the Great Teacher’s code of living. This code, among certain repressive features, heavily weighs on rituals and their importance. Modern China retains many rituals, but one that remains on top of all is that of cooking and eating the meal. Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley writes, “Among all of the human senses, the Chinese privilege ‘taste’ the most” (225). By thorough preparation and painstaking attention to detail, Chinese cooks view the meal as a social cornerstone to which they anchor their state of mind, emotions, and desires. This can be viewed as a very provoking social construction in China, one that warrants further examination. Enter Taiwanese director Ang Lee. In his filmmaking career, Lee has developed an aptitude for exploring social issues and, even in his larger ensemble films, prob­ing into characters’ individual psychologies. He is a humanist in the sense that unraveling and mapping out the personas, attributes, and goals of human beings is central to his work; he often breaks down characters to their less diluted states. Lee seeks to get under the skin of the people in his films, be it through food or sexuality. This is not to say that Lee has no other interests in his filmmaking process. Indeed, he also enormously emphasizes the importance of cultural representation, especially that of his own culture. Through two of his films, Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) and Lust, Caution (2007), Ang Lee delves into the mechanics of human nature via food and sexual­ity, respectively. Additionally, he endeavors to forge a better understanding of both Chinese culture and the most basic and fundamental feature of human nature: love. This essay will investigate, as Lee does, the ways in which these themes are projected by means of an inherently Chinese perspective. Ang Lee is a director who has worldwide prestige, but he has never lost hold of his roots, as Eat Drink Man Woman energetically depicts.

Immediately after his internationally successful comedy-drama, The Wedding Banquet (1993), Lee sought to return to his specific Chinese heritage in the form of a story concerning a widowed chef, his three daughters and their relationships with each other and those in their lives. At this vague level, the film sounds as if there is no Chinese distinction, a universal story that could be told from anywhere. However, it is the precise role of food that makes Eat Drink Man Woman a decidedly Chinese narrative. The title itself stems from a Chinese proverb found in the Li Ji, the Record of Rights, which reads, “Eat and drink, man and woman-the greatest human desires reside in them” (Rawnsley, 226). Herein lies the first and foremost allusion to Chinese culture within the film. Its title, which at a glance appears to be a strange checklist or something of the sort, reveals itself to be pivotally Chinese phrase. And coming from the Li Ji, it illustrates how Chinese culture and Ang Lee remain faithful to tradition. In the film’s context, eating and drinking are one in the same, tying together the characters’ personalities and, indeed, their “greatest human desires,” vis-à-vis love.

Lee wastes no time to showcase the core significance of food as he cuts from city shots of the urban sprawl of Taipei motorists to an extreme close up of a fish seized from a water bowl, gutted, skewered, and cooked. It is through a frenetic series of close-up shots that the viewer is introduced to Chef Chu. He methodically prepares the meal with meticulous skill and confidence as he slices and dices various meats and vegetables, collects a live chicken from his yard for boiling, and arranges the final product on the dinner table, as one would an art collection, for his and his daughters’ habitual consumption of a Sunday night meal. Lee immediately establishes the fact that the family dinner is a ritual and tradition in the Chu family, keeping in toe with the larger sense of ritualized traditions in Chinese culture. Yet a tension exists between tradition and the modernized family because Sunday dinner appears to be a taxing, obligatory enterprise for all four of them. As Whitney Crothers Dilley writes in The Cinema of Ang Lee, “What is valued by him (Chu) does not seem to be valued by the younger generation, and he goes through the Sunday night dinner ritual week after week, he has lost his taste for it” (76). Despite having an extraordinary dinner placed before them, Chu’s three daughters, Jia-Chien, Jia-Jen, and Jia-Ning, scarcely make an effort to engage their father in conversation, let alone thank him for bestowing the bountiful meal upon them. Constant interruptions plague the family dynamics as Chu attempts to say, twice, “These past two days, I…” as the daughters interrupt him and each other. The phone rings, which one may think would be yet another interruption, but it is a Godsend for Chu as it is an emergency call from his work kitchen at the Grand Hotel, where he truly feels a sense of belonging.

A long tracking steadicam shot follows Chu through the chaotic kitchen, in reminiscence of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, as he is greeted by several cooks and waiters who respect him like a senior military officer. He walks with determination and even has his chef jacket and hat put on for him by others in the kitchen as he concentrates on finding a solution to a disastrous Whole Shark Fin dish. Chu takes solace in this kitchen with his peers, especially his old friend, Chef Wen. Here, he can cook and prepare opulent dishes that will be eaten ritualistically in a traditional restaurant, not haphazardly by his ungrateful daughters at home. The restaurant space allows Chu to be in his true traditional ele­ment. That is to say he does not have to face the modernity that his daughters symbolize: the gossipy nature of conversation, hurried attitudes, disengagement with their elders, along with the words, “I have an announcement to make.” Each daughter utters this sentence in the multiple dinner scenes, always heralding dreadful news to come. In the first such instance, Jia-Jen tells the family that she will be moving out of the house to live in “Little Paris in the East.” This new luxury apartment complex and neo-colonial reference causes Chu, in his “generational separation,” to realize how he continues to lose the grip on his children to the modernized Taipei around them (Dilley, 73). This meal, which for all intents and purposes, should bring the family together, counterproductively deepens the rift between them. Rawnsley buoys this unfortunate circumstance:

They force themselves to stay as a traditional family unit and perform typical family roles that they feel oth­ers, but sometimes themselves, imposed on them. We have never seen a happy scene associated with their family dining table (232).

Food, as a cultural linchpin in China and Taiwan, serves as a harbinger of ill tidings in the Chu household, but elsewhere, it is a bringer of pleasure and romantic prospects.

As Chu confides in his dear friend Wen that the current situation with his daughters is comparable to his profession, “It’s like cooking. Your appetite’s gone when the dish is done,” Lee crosscuts with the daughters acting in their various and highly respectable occupations of chemistry teacher, airline company executive, and university student. While they work, amorous opportunities present themselves by way of food and drink. A young man courts Jia-Ning over a meal of noodles and tofu; Jia-Jen and Li Kai, a co-worker, develop feelings for each other in her office as they share a bottle of scotch. In many cultures, not only Chinese, slowly drinking alcoholic beverages conveys a meeting ritual in which two people get to know each other and grow more comfortable and possibly intimate as well. Jia-Jen gains a sense of trust here:

JIA-JEN: Why this?

LI KAI: Business? The airline business? The same way you did.

JIA-JEN: Well, I didn’t really plan this.

LI KAI: Exactly.” She smiles and raises her glass to Li Kai’s health.

When Chef Chu is not cooking in the Grand Hotel during the day, he takes the opportunity to bond with his neighbor’s young daughter, Shan-Shan. So close is their relationship that she calls him “Grandpa Chu.” Food works to bring them even closer as Chu begins to bring Shan-Shan extravagant homemade lunches at school. “Spareribs, crab with vegetables…and your favorite, bitter melon soup.” Chu excitedly prepares these meals for young Shan-Shan, proving that he is not tired of being a father. Quite the contrary, the time he spends with Shan-Shan echoes his daughters’ youth and how he walked them to school and made exquisite lunches for them to take. Evident through his care for Shan-Shan and the time and effort he puts into her lunches, Chu reveals that he wants to continue raising his daughters.

Even with his fatigued demeanor Chu knows, as he always has, that he cooks for his daughters every Sunday out of love. The dinners often prove to leave an acrid aftertaste for the Chu family, but the tradition lives on due to food’s ability to join people. After all, as Tarja Laine attests, “the family that tastes together stays together” (105). Laine de­fines family, in the film’s context as “not so much a concrete entity, but a way of interpreting interpersonal, familial ties… there is no original core or main essence of family, but fami­lies are always in the making, in the context of the (trans) cultural” (105). She does not write off the family unit in her essay, but compares Chu and his daughters to the food they eat: fragmented pieces that coalesce in the proper tempera­ment and the proper care.

Ang Lee does not emphasize sexuality in Eat Drink Man Woman; the film is very anti-sexual in its depiction of Chu and the daughters’ searches for love. This mode of sexual representation, or lack thereof, functions as a polar counterpoint to Lust, Caution, the film to be expanded upon later. Indeed, sexuality has a presence in Eat Drink Man Woman, but it is exceedingly nominal compared to the com­manding forces of cooking and food. “The scene in which the oldest sister vamps herself up after thinking she has received a love letter from an admirer is perhaps the most smoldering image in the movie” (Dilley, 78). As insightful as Dilley’s chapter on this film is to readers, her insistence on sexuality as a “vibrant element of the story” does not seem relevant; the film is about food as a personal and cultural identity marker.

“We communicate by eating,” proclaims Jia-Jen at the dinner table. Her words speak volumes about the nature of family tradition and rituals within Chinese culture. Another Chinese saying declares, “Life is a combination of hundreds of tastes that is made of various degrees of sourness, sweetness, bitterness, and chili (suan, tian, ku, la, bai wei ju quan)” (Rawnsley, 225). Chef Chu and his daughters trifle with each of these ingredients, but the resulting recipe leads to a much more satisfying and loving dish. By the film’s end, the family is literally separated, but figuratively linked by the persistent existence of food crafted as a labor of love; “the art of Chinese cuisine.” At one point in the film, Chu tells a colleague, as if in final, exhausted resignation, “People are so insensitive. They can’t appreciate the art of exquisite dining.” Yet as Rawnsley contends and the ending impeccably portrays,

Dining is most enjoyable when all the right conditions are in place-delicious food and drink, warm and pleas­ant company, comfortable settings and eaters them­selves being in good health and…a joyous mood. This is when eating becomes ‘more than simply a biological or ceremonial function, but rather a source of pleasure that can even be spiritually uplifting’ (233).

The final scene in Eat Drink Man Woman is almost completely silent save for boiling water and clattering dishes from Jia-Chien’s first dinner preparation for her father. Lee brings the film full circle in his message of “treasur­ing traditional family values and honoring Chinese culture as depicted in Chef Chu’s beautiful culinary arts” (233). Everything that food has come to represent in this film and in Chinese culture synthesizes in these closing moments as father and daughter lovingly sit down together. The final shot, the most beautiful and tender moment in the film, shows a long shot of the two family members at the dinner table, surrounded by food. Chef Chu and Jia-Chien touch hands on the soup bowl and gaze into each other’s eyes, each saying only one word to the other, and only one word is necessary: “Daughter.” “Dad.” The shot captures everything that Lee sought to investigate. Food is a bedrock to Chinese tradition culture, and human nature itself. Lee picked up this trail thirteen years later to explore sexuality as another aspect of intrinsic Chinese and universal humanity.

In terms of content, Eat Drink Man Woman and Lust, Caution could not be more dissimilar. While the former takes place in modern Taipei, the latter’s story unfolds in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Food is supplanted by sexuality as the primary conveyor by which Lee examines the characters and their culture. The film also tackles the issue of cultural clashes in the wake of foreign imperialism. Occupation forces brought their culture along with them as soon as Shanghai fell to the Japanese war machine. Amidst the larger war between China, Japan, and the rest of the world, Shanghai acts as ground zero for the two cultures to see which side can prevail. James Schamus, executive pro­ducer and co-screenwriter of the film, maintains that the orig­inal story was written as “a profound cry of protests against the warring structures of domination that so cataclysmically shaped mid-century China” (Schamus, xiii). Meanwhile, the two central protagonists, Mr. Yee and Wong Chia Chi, also known as Mak Tai Tai, begin a highly sensual and illicit af­fair.

Mr. Yee is a Chinese government official cooperat­ing with the Japanese. Seeing him as a traitor to his nation, a group of university students attempt to pull the ultimate theatrical deception in order to kill Yee. This ruse involves young Wong Chia Chi, a member of the student group, taking on a false identity as Mak Tai Tai in order to seduce Yee, making him an easier target. The swindle takes a turn as Wong, a virgin, places herself in the vulnerable position of becoming Yee’s concubine. Their sexual relationship, which earned this film an NC-17 rating, arises out of violence and sheer lust, exposing these two characters as the carnal beings they are. Their affair evolves into something that Wong never anticipated; she develops feelings of love for Yee, as he did for her upon their first meeting, jeopardizing her entire mis­sion and throwing herself deeper into a sexually entangled web of false identities and crossbred cultures.

As Chinese and Japanese cultures struggle for figurative control of Shanghai, a third cultural influence lies in the periphery, that of the West. Wong orders coffee, in broken English, at Kiessling’s Café, staffed by French waiters and French music playing in the background. She also amuses herself by frequenting the movie theater, seeing Hollywood films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941). However, a Japanese propaganda film declaring, “The war to liberate Asia is being won,” interrupts it. The film goes on to say, “The Asian people have finally broken free of the Westerner’s grip,” which in itself is paradoxi­cal because hundreds of Chinese civilians are sitting in a movie theater projecting a Western film. More importantly, the narration concludes, “Asia is returning to the hands of the Asians. The struggle goes on until Asia once again belongs…” and it fades out as Wong loses interest and leaves. The final words of the propaganda film indirectly resemble the film’s illustration of the cultural battle occurring within Shanghai and Japanese-occupied Asia. The Japanese hypocritically viewed themselves as liberators from Western imperialism as they stormed across Asia and the Pacific to violently fashion their empire. China experienced forced assimilation into facets of Japanese culture. The most lucid example of this comes from the geisha house to which Mr. Yee invites Wong. As she walks through the house, she witnesses Chinese women on the arms of Japanese soldiers, geishas in traditional garb prostituting themselves to cus­tomers, as well as traditional Japanese music and songs.