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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Eat’: A Feast of Food, Sex and Comedy

TIMES FILM CRITIC

By all means see “Eat Drink Man Woman,” but not on an empty stomach. Filled with so many spectacular Chinese dishes it reduces “Like Water for Chocolate” to a Pritikin Diet promotion, this wise and rueful romantic comedy about those unavoidable human desires, food and sex, looks tasty enough to incite a monk to abandon the simple life.

The latest work from director Ang Lee (who co-wrote with Hui-Ling Wang and James Schmaus), “Eat Drink” shares an empathetic sensibility with Lee’s Oscar-nominated hit, “The Wedding Banquet.” A look at the intertwined lives of a father and his three live-at-home daughters, this is more than anything a personal-scaled film, funny, emotional and compassionate toward the human comedy, Taiwan-style.

For unlike the New York-based “Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink” is set in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, an upscale, up-to-date but rarely seen metropolis where young women often have Western names like Sophia and Rachel and are comfortable in both miniskirts and Buddhist temples.

The three beautiful sisters “Eat Drink” is concerned with, however, all have traditional Chinese names, because their father, Master Chu (“The Wedding Banquet’s” father, Sihung Lung), is a believer in the old ways.

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A wizardly chef, perhaps the greatest in Taipei, Chu is crusty and brusque but a national treasure behind the stove. “Eat Drink” opens with an engaging sequence where the great man, chopping, slicing and dicing like a Vegamatic gone wild, prepares a series of knockout dishes.

It looks like the feast of a lifetime (and in fact “Eat Drink” utilized three master chefs full-time, plus several consulting food specialists) but Chu does this every Sunday for his daughters, who, not surprisingly, are tired of the fuss.

Referring to the meal as “the Sunday dinner torture ritual,” they spend most of it bickering with each other and their father, who has been a widower for so long he can’t accept that his children are all grown women.

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The daughters, for their parts, though old enough to be out on their own, stay at home partly for financial reasons but also because their desire for independence is balanced by the Chinese tradition of filial responsibility, the desire to give their father, irritating though he is, the respect and attention his position as head of the family merits.

Most likely to leave first is middle daughter Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), a career-oriented executive with a Taiwanese airline. Still involved sexually with an ex-boyfriend but with her eye on a married co-worker (Winston Chao, the co-star of “Wedding Banquet”), she is eager to move into an about-to-open condominium complex known as the Paris of the East.

Most likely to be stuck taking care of Chu (and not particularly pleased about it) is oldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), a serious Christian who teaches chemistry at an all-boys high school. Still fixated on her long-gone first boyfriend, she can’t help but notice the school’s muscular new volleyball coach.

Not even thinking about romance is Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the 20-year-old baby of the family who works behind the counter at Wendy’s and amuses herself by chatting up a co-worker’s Dostoevsky-reading boyfriend whose credo is “love is suffering.”

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As for Chu, when the master chef is not performing emergency “have wok will travel” culinary rescues at elaborate hotel banquets, he relaxes by cooking tasty lunches for the grade-school daughter of a neighbor (top Taiwanese star Sylvia Chang) who is involved in a messy divorce.

“Eat Drink” cuts back and forth between the daughters’ interaction with each other, their father and the other men around them, watching with fond but clear-eyed sympathy as they cope with the confusions and misapprehensions of their lives.

Similar to the Chinese banquet it will make all but the most resolute hungry for, “Eat Drink Man Woman” is a leisurely affair, not in any hurry either to dole out the amusing surprises writer-director Lee is fond of or to resolve its conflicts.

This is a film that trusts us not to get impatient and also trusts us to appreciate the humor and poignancy in its situations without having to be force-fed. Though it is only Ang Lee’s third feature, it is a strikingly confident one, and viewers will be understandably eager for the next course to appear.

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* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It includes adult romantic and sexual situations.

‘Eat Drink Man Woman’

Sihung Lung: Tao Chu Kuei-Mei Yang: Jia-Jen Chien-Lien Wu: Jia-Chien Yu-Wen Wang: Jia-Ning A Central Motion Picture Corp. production, in association with Ang Lee Productions and Good Machine, released by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. Director Ang Lee. Producer Li-Kong Hsu. Screenplay Ang Lee & Hui-Ling Wang and James Schmaus. Cinematographer Jong Lin. Editor Tim Squyres. Music Mader. Art director Fu-Hsiung Lee. Set decorator Hsi-Chien Lee. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

* In limited release in Southern California.

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