I’ve been watching a few of Ang Lee’s early movies recently, and the badly named Eat Drink Man Women (1994), taken from the Chinese characters 食飲男女 meaning food and drink, and human relationships, is one of the better ones.
This is a lighthearted story about the family of a widowed Taipei chef who is losing his sense of taste. He lives with his three daughters who each live very different lives, their interaction coming at the dinner table on a Sunday, when the father prepares lavish feasts for them. Food is one of the stars of this tale, with sumptuous shots of various Chinese dishes being prepared. The girls various relationship problems are introduced, and as twists and turns occur, there is little doubt that things will eventually resolve themselves. It’s a film enjoyable for its sense of everyday life, and the familial relationships and interaction that give you a sense of how things work in another culture. On the other hand, it’s undoubtedly light, a puff pastry of a piece rather than a rich and multi-layered affair.
A similarly warm-hearted, if somewhat sentimental film by Ang Lee is The Wedding Banquet. A third film of his I’ve recently seen, The Ice Storm, is about two dysfunctional families in rural New England, set during the turbulent changes of the late 1970s. The depiction of cultural traditions and character interaction in all three films is impressive, but the first is my favourite, possibly because of its setting (having said that it’s certainly not a patch on Yi Yi).
Joint Security Area is a 2000 movie by renowned Korean director Park Chan-wook. It centres on an incident that occurs along the DMZ, involving North and South Korean soldiers. The Rashomon-esque retelling of events by both sides reveals a clear disparity in the story, and hints at a cover up. As the film unfolds (at a good pace, and with beautiful cinematography) the tragic truth slowly emerges. I would agree with some other reviews that the Korean actress playing the Swiss guard is not particularly good in the role (her English definitely isn’t good enough), but the other central leads are superb, and the film has all the elements that suggest Park Chan-wook’s future successes. The ending shot, shown above, is a particularly powerful way to close the tale, capturing a brief moment of illicit friendship doomed to failure given the historical problems that blight the Korean peninsula. The North Korean characters are as complex and multifaceted as the South Koreans, and the use of silence and symbolism, particularly the lighter and smoking of cigarettes, is very well done.
Eternal Summer is a 2006 Taiwanese film directed by Leste Chen. It tells the tale of three students from rural Taiwan- studious Jonathan, rebellious Shane and new girl Carrie. Their love triangle, and Jonathan’s sexual identity crisis, form the basis of the piece. It received publicity for dealing openly with homosexuality in a society that still considers such things taboo. It’s fairly straightforward in terms of plot evolution, but is very well executed, with good casting and superb acting from the two guys in particular. Some of the scenes – particularly the rural school in southern Taiwan, reminded me of my old school in rural Japan. If your cup of tea is character-driven Asian art house cinema, then you’ll like it. The ending in particular is very nicely done, and Leste Chen should be one to watch for the future.