Pushing Hands / The Wedding Banquet / Eat Drink Man Woman
The last two and a half decades, Lee has long surpassed being a talented, up-and-coming Asian-American filmmaker with awkward English and a shy smile and transformed himself into a global phenomenon, a wizard of celluloid storytelling, a new age Billy Wilder with expertise in any genre and a worldwide appeal to audiences that very few other artists possess.
Whether it’s about Taiwanese Americans caught between modernism and tradition (Pushing Hands, 1992, The Wedding Banquet, 1993), a Jane Austen classic about love and repression (Sense and Sensibility, 1995), an urban, American family drama (The Ice Storm, 1997), a martial arts epic (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000 – for which he also won an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category), a sad romance between two gay cowboys (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), a sadomasochistic love affair during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (Lust, Caution, 2009) or a CGI boosted, spiritual-philosophical super-fantasy (Life of Pi, 2012), Lee’s ability to make the genre of his own and explore the human soul on a universal level while constantly bridging the gap between the diversities of time, place and culture is clearly astonishing.
Lee’s father was a patriarchal figure, a principal of a local high school, who placed great emphasis on academic studies and expected his son to become a teacher. He was very disappointed when, instead, Lee entered the National Art School (now National Taiwan University of Arts). Lee’s conflict with his father added to the range of subjects often explored in his films. ‘Artistically, I was very repressed. At school, I would fantasise all the time, having a lot of fun in my head because I didn’t have a lot of fun. That repression was released when I became a filmmaker’ he confessed to The Guardian in 2013. Indeed, repression is something that is often plumbed in Lee’s characters.
After completing his military service, in 1979, Lee went to the United States to study theatre at the University of Illinois where he met his future wife. Shortly afterwards, he enrolled at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University where he received his MFA in film production. Spending a few years in anxiety, during which time Lee was toying with story ideas while supported by his wife, he managed to get sponsorship for his first feature, Pushing Hands. It would become the first piece of his trio often referred to as the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy and also the first of his films that got him really noticed as a promising filmmaker.
Mr Chu (Sihung Lung), a retired Chinese t’ai chi master and widower has just moved to a New York suburb to be with his son, Alex (Bo Z Wang), a well-off professional, and his grandson, Jeremy (Haan Lee). Alex’s American wife, Martha (Deb Snyder) is a writer suffering from writer’s block and finds his father-in-law pottering about the house very disruptive. She doesn’t speak Chinese and Mr Chu doesn’t understand a word of English which makes things even worse. Alex, when at home, acts as a translator, sometimes altering the meaning of their words to diffuse the situation between them. To beat time and make himself ‘useful’, Mr Chu teaches tai chi at the local Chinese Community Centre where he meets Mrs Chen (Wang Lai), a cooking instructor. A friendship develops between them which brings Mr Chu back to life. He goes on a picnic with his son and grandson (without Martha) and Mrs Chen and her family. However, it’s soon apparent to Mr Chu and Mrs Chen that their children tried to manipulate them into a date. Humiliated, Mr Chu brings himself to take a desperate decision.
The film highlights the conflict between modern, individualistic Western values and the old Confucian, Chinese tradition of respect for the father and the family, but also the feeling of uselessness of the old generation as soon as the younger one is out of the nest. The intensity of conflict within the family grips us from the start despite the slow pace and the confined space at the beginning of the film: the opening scene is a twenty-four minute, nearly silent sequence showing Martha and Mr Chu in their own parallel worlds as she nervously punches her keyboard while he practises meditation and t’ai chi ch’uan. It’s quite an admirable scene and shows Lee’s elaborate sense of symbolism. The story sometimes borders on melodrama but the balance is quickly restored by some humour and the spiritual wisdom surrounding the charismatic Chu.
The Wedding Banquet
The first Taiwanese film to openly explore gay issues – a proof that Lee doesn’t shy away from pushing boundaries. Wai Tung Gao (Winston Chao) is a gay, Taiwanese professional, living in New York with his American lover, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein). Wai’s parents, Mr Gao (again Sihung Lung) and Mrs Gao (Kuei Ya-lei) are worried that he’s still not married and try everything to ‘help him along’: they keep searching on dating sites for possible matches and his mother showers him with loving words and advice via cassettes she sends him through the post. Of course, they don’t know Wai is gay and, at Simon’s suggestion, Wai decides to marry Wei Wei (May Chin), a penniless Chinese artist and Wai’s tenant so the bogus marriage will provide him with a cover and her with a much needed green card. What they don’t expect, however, is the eagerness with which the Gao parents hop on the first plane at the news to fly over from Taiwan. When they arrive, they anticipate no less than a huge, traditional celebration…The film wonderfully employs elements of slapstick comedy that reaches climatic heights during the madcap sequence of the wedding banquet. The Wedding Banquet earned an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category for Lee, together with his third and last one of the trilogy, Eat Drink Man Woman.
Eat Drink Man Woman
The title referring to an old Confucian quote about the basic desires of humans and their acceptance of them as natural) is about a traditional family unit with a powerful father figure in the centre. Expert gourmet chef, Chu (Sihung Lung’s third portrayal of the patriarch) is a widower with three marriageable daughters with their own personalities and personal issues. Chu Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is a buttoned-up schoolteacher who finds solace in Christianity after a heartbreak. Chu Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) has a powerful position as an airline executive. She cherishes her independence but yearns for romance. She also has a secret passion for cooking shadowed by her father’s culinary might. The youngest daughter, Chu Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), is a student and part-time fast food waitress who snatches her hard-to-get friend’s boyfriend. Every Sunday, Chu invites her daughters to a lavish feast he prepares and to which they go both lovingly and reluctantly as the banquets become family meetings turned confession booths where each daughter has something new to reveal. The daughters seek and meet different types of men but none of them is prepared for what their father has to announce…
The camera often lingers on Chu preparing mouth-watering dishes in elaborate detail; an orgy of ingredients and steaming juices that leaves the viewer craving.
Out of the three films, Eat Drink Man Woman was the one that became both critically and commercially a huge success in equal measure and put Ang Lee firmly on Hollywood’s radar, garnering another Academy Award nomination.
The Ang Lee Trilogy, tackling the issues of tradition and modernity, duty and desire, the conflict between Eastern and Western values, with great humour and sensitivity, is a must for both Ang Lee fans and anyone who’s passionate about world cinema.
Includes a booklet written by Ang Lee expert Whitney Dilley, author of The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen.
There are no bonus features.
Review by Eva Moravetz
The Ang Lee Trilogy is out on DVD on 24 August.