Directed by Ang Lee, 1993
Although this film didn’t change my life as far as actually getting a wok, it certainly deepened my appreciation for the art of Chinese cooking. As the title suggests the film is about universal connecting themes of great power: food, relationships and family.
The film concerns an old, sympathetic, semi-retired master chef and his three pretty daughters (and pretty difficult at that) who still live with him but are itching to get away. All four of them have problems. The chef lost his wife a few years back and although he has acquired extraordinary abilities in his profession and has, to quote the famous Chuang Tsu parable, “plenty of room for the play of the butcher’s cleaver“ he doubts the wisdom of devoting so much of his energy to cooking obsessively and feels there must be more to life, pondering on the old Chinese saying “man dies in pursuit of wealth, and birds die in the pursuit of food”. To add poignancy to the situation, his taste buds are failing him.
The first daughter of the family, who works as a high-school teacher is very romantically inclined but is scared of intimacy, resulting in relationship problems (trying to “go north by driving the chariot south”). The second daughter is stuck in her job in a fast-food restaurant and the third daughter, who is seen as the career woman of the family with great potential, loses all her savings in the course of an unlucky investment.
Although the family members very much live their own lives they all get together on Sundays for a meal, which has been painstakingly prepared by the father. I was rather taken aback by situations depicted in the film in which some of the women make little attempt to hide their ingratitude, but then that’s how we people are, often without realizing it. The film focuses on the significance of these family gatherings, through sharing what is communicated during these meals – on several levels.
There’s some surprising character development throughout the story. To say much more would probably be spoiling the experience of the film for those who haven’t seen it but I must say that the finale had me slapping my thighs in uncharacteristic delight and the ending drew forth a happy tear.
The film has quite a few moments where one can observe very proficient cooks at work in the traditional Chinese way. In fact, without in any way forcing the notion down one’s throat, it reminds one how important it is for many traditions to be kept alive. As the Chinese saying goes: “One generation plants the trees under whose shade another generation rests.”
The film is full of little subtleties and keen observations of human behaviour including tenderness and kindness.
It’s a great film for one’s next of kin and friends and is (as far as I can tell) completely free of monosodium glutamate.