The Right, The Appropriate and The Self

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Eat Drink Man Woman is the Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s third and, in my opinions, most touching movie released in 1994. The movie complements Ang’s quest for the Confucianism-driven family hierarchy and moral standards, following Pushing Hands and the Wedding Banquet. The former tells a story about a father of a Chinese immigrant to the US trying to find his way in the country, and the latter plots how a Taiwanese gay man, with his American boyfriend and a girl tenant ‘fleeted’ from Shanghai, tries to get away of the task of childbearing, yet ends up expecting a baby with the tenant and starting a gay-slash-straight-slash-not-so-serious family.

I first watched Eat in high school when I was 16 years old. For me, back then, I did not look at it the way I was supposed to—that’s right—I didn’t really care about the Confucianism jibber jabber. Instead, I understood it in a very juvenile and oversimplifying perspective: it’s just a story about love. But the movie tells something much more advanced than love.

The movie centers on the Chu Family. Mr. Chu, the bread earner, was a retired chef at the Taipei Grand Hotel. He raised his three daughters, Chia Jen, Chia Chien and Chia Ning alone. Mr. Chu seems to be a very typical Chinese parent who solely cares about righteousness and family harmony—nothing triumphs these two. Yet, he also found love at an age of almost 70 years with someone young enough to be his daughter—well, someone who went to the same class with his daughter Chia Chien.

 

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The three daughters in turn have very different ways of seeing love. The movie proceeds while all these viewpoints conflict and reconcile with each other. I don’t want to spoil any more details. Let’s just say after rounds of chaos, everyone in the family eventually ended up with a true love, except for Chia Chien who opted for a huge career promotion.

 

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Chia Chien and Mr. Chu are probably two characters in the movie that deserve most attention. Chia Chien is an avant-gardes working woman, by then. She’s ambitious and deplores sexism. She pursues freedom and chooses to make every moment count. But she also has a strong attachment to the old kitchen that Mr. Chu used to work in. She wanted to become a chef just like Mr. Chu, who ran her out of kitchen and ‘put’ her to a totally different life track.

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Mr. Chu stands for the tradition—the-possibly-not-so-good and old values. He had put up with the chores, the college, the rebellions and, worst of all, loneliness. He ‘served’ his lifetime in greasy smoke of the kitchen and on his three daughters. Now that everyone is able to live her own life, he wanted love and joy, that is, to put his priority first, probably for the first time since 30 years?

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The movie is insightful not just because it unravels the inter-generational ‘collision’ but also it shows the conflicts between collectivism and individualism. It’s also a journey to the understanding of changing landscape of family moral hierarchy of the East.

For those of you interested in developmental psychology, organizational behavior or even consumer behavior, it’s a classic you don’t want to miss.

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