Movie Reviews: Eat Drink Man Woman and Cape No. 7

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Ang Lee’s 1994 classic, Eat Drink Man Woman, centers around the unconventional lives of three sisters and their traditionalist father. The primary themes of the film embody generational dissonance, the encroachment of Western values in Eastern society, and traditionalism vs. modernity. A once successful chef, the girls’ father – Mr. Chu – has become reclusive since the death of his wife. Food is a common thread that unites and also divides the family. The dinner table forms the center point of the film where most of the family arguments occur. Maslin calls Mr. Chu’s cooking “an expression of larger traditionalism as an endangered art” (Maslin “Film Review: Avoiding...”). The idea of the inevitable tide of progress is apparent in the lives of the three adult daughters, while their father clings to the unchanging values of traditional Chinese society. Lee weaves a surprising twist into the film’s conclusion. It is ultimately Mr. Chu who undergoes the most radical change by abandoning his lonely, widower status and marrying a woman who he finds happiness with.

Mr. Chu’s three daughters have diverged into various paths that challenge the image of the future Chu had for them. Each member of the family unit seeks satisfaction in different ways. The eldest daughter is a school teacher whose past relationship has left her broken and feeling devalued. The middle daughter is the most analogous to her father and also the most rebellious. A beautiful airline executive, she shuns committed relationships in favor of her independence. Like her father, Jia-Chien possesses culinary talent but has not pursued this passion in favor of more realistic career advancement. The youngest daughter is a college student who works at a fast food restaurant, posing the most overt insult to the metaphor of food and traditionalism. The family must overcome their philosophical differences, learn acceptance, and ultimately discover that the key to contentment lies in life’s simplicity.

The title of the film derives from the Confucian proverb which roughly translates as, “the things which men greatly desire are comprehended in meat and drink and sexual pleasure” (Louie 214). The essence of this philosophy is that happiness can be attained by accepting the simplicity of basic human desires. Lee’s film draws from Chinese cultural references in terms of Eastern philosophy and values. For example, rigid gender roles are a tenet of traditional Eastern civilization, with women typically marrying and starting families in their 20’s. Jia-Chien fiercely rebels against this construct. However, in doing so, she falls into a limited view of life that is career driven and objective, ignoring her emotional needs.

Similarly, the eldest sister contends with her Western views being at odds with her father’s more traditional standards. Jia-Jen has converted to Christianity. Mr. Chu sees this as cultural erasure. Western ideals of independence are interpreted by Mr. Chu as disrespectful to their family and heritage. This affront is further by the youngest sister working for a commercial fast food restaurant. The fast food industry has directly replaced Mr. Chu’s traditional cuisine in favor of convenience, poor quality food, and lowered prices. The idea of Western trends threatening traditional culture is a running theme in the narrative. Ultimately, the film’s outcome proves that new ideas are not necessarily counter-cultural. The key to happiness lies in the universal acknowledgment of one’s basic needs. This self-acceptance is tied closely to individual identity and thus cannot be measured by any outside standard. Through this truth, Mr. Chu and his daughters are able to embrace their differences and find joy in life’s simplicity. Mr. Chu learns that life is not linear, but fluid, dynamic, and continually progressing. His daughters learn that respect and appreciation for their cultural heritage is not mutually exclusive to their independence. Thus, balance is key in Lee’s heartwarming drama. I would recommend this film based on its entertaining array of characters, complex themes, and slice-of-life narrative style.

Cape No. 7 is a Taiwanese drama, written and directed by Wei Te-sheng. The musical romantic drama tells a multi-generational story of two couples and the timelessness of unrequited love. The first story takes place in the 1940’s. A romance blossoms between a school teacher who is displaced during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan. The two form an immediate connection that is cut short by the unnamed teacher being sent back to Taiwan as a result of the Japanese surrender and subsequent control of Taiwan by China. On his journey back, he pens love letters to his beloved that are never sent. These letters express his deep regret for their failed dreams of a life together.

The film skips ahead to modern day Taiwan, where aspiring musician, Aga, takes a postal route to pay the bills while his band struggles for success. Aga discovers the letters – sent by the now deceased teacher’s daughter - have been returned as undeliverable due to the recipient’s address no longer existing. Touched, he keeps the letters until he can deliver them safely. The band is offered a chance to play at a local hotel, which subsequently brings a stage manager, Tomoko, into Aga’s life. Despite a tumultuous beginning, the two fall madly in love until Tomoko tells Aga that she must return to Japan after the concert due to a job offer. It is further revealed that Tomoko is the granddaughter of the woman for whom the letters were intended. They are able to deliver the letters to her grandmother, ironically parting ways themselves. Aga’s concert is successful, and the final scenes of the film offer a parallel between the lovers. Tomoko’s grandmother reads the letters, while Aga puts his heartbreak into music and achieves his dream of becoming a rock star.

The cultural background of Cape No. 7 is one of displacement and parallelism. The Japanese rule of Taiwan occurred between 1895 to 1945 (Worden 114). This significant historical period profoundly impacted cultural demarcation and demographics. It is relevant that the main character is an unnamed teacher, as educational – as well as cultural – assimilation was one impact of Japan’s rule (Poon “History of China”). As in Lee’s film, the threat of cultural erasure is an undertone throughout the narrative. Taiwanese society has been encroached upon by outside values from Japan and China, as well as the West. This nostalgia and melancholy are symbolized by the distant love affair of the protagonists. The couples in the film always fail to meet on some level. This could be viewed as a sense of lost hope for cultural reclamation. Asia for Educators summarizes the impacts of imperialism thus, “the ability of the Western nations and then Japan to impose their economic demands on China by force of arms was jarring to the Chinese view of themselves as a highly developed civilization. Moreover, the Western notion of a system of international relations conducted among sovereign nation-states challenged Chinese identity as an advanced, universalistic civilization” (Asia for Educations “China in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries).

In conclusion, Cape No. 7 is a subtle, but brilliant film that deals with a loss of culture and subsequent displacement. The themes of the initial narrative are mirrored by the parallel story offered in the contemporary lovers. It is relevant to note that Western influence is heavily apparent in the second half of the film, a testament to the feared cultural erasure having triumphed. The couple is no longer displaced by war and political shifts, but by ambition and choice. This could be viewed as a commentary on Western values vs. Eastern values. Ultimately, I strongly recommend Cape No. 7 as a compelling romantic drama.

Works Cited

Asia for Educators. “China in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries.” Introduction to China's Modern History | Asia for Educators | Columbia University, afe.easia.columbia.edu/timelines/china_modern_timeline.htm.

Louie, K. H. The Cambridge companion to modern Chinese culture. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Maslin, Janet. “Film Review; Avoiding Basic Human Desires or Trying To.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Aug. 1994, www.nytimes.com/1994/08/03/movies/film-review-avoiding-basic-human-desires-or-trying-to.html.

Poon, Leon. History of China: Table of Contents, www-chaos.umd.edu/history/toc.html.

Worden, Robert L., Andrea M. Savada, and Ronald E. Dolan. China: A country study. No. DA-PAM-550-60. Department of The Army Washington DC, 1987.