I’m a big fan of Ang Lee. On top of the modern classics he’s directed like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, I also like the Oscar winning Life of Pi a lot and I’m even a supporter of his underrated comic book movie, Hulk. In particular, I’ve always been impressed by how diverse his output is. His career didn’t start that way though. His first three features form an unofficial trilogy, often known as the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy, due to their thematic similarity. These three low key comedy dramas were quite well regarded on release, but somehow they’ve never been available on DVD in the UK. Thankfully, Altitude Film Distribution have taken it upon themselves to rectify the situation. I set aside some time to watch these three films I’ve waited to see for a long time, to give my verdict.
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Ang Lee, Neil Peng, James Schamus
Starring: Sihung Lung, Deb Snyder, Bo Z. Wang, Lai Wang
Running Time: 105 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Ang Lee’s debut feature, Pushing Hands, sees elderly Taiwanese Tai-Chi master Mr Chu struggling to adapt to life in America, living with his son Alex (Bo Z. Wang), grandson and American daughter-in-law Martha (Deb Snyder). The latter isn’t happy about this arrangement either. She’s a writer and can’t concentrate on her work with her father in law pottering around the house all day, practising martial arts and watching abrasive Chinese musicals. It doesn’t help that the two can’t communicate with each other due to the language barrier, so there is much friction in the household. This situation is efficiently set up in a nicely directed, almost silent opening sequence.
As the situation gets worse, Mr Chu starts to feel like more of a burden and Alex thinks about putting him in a home. When Mr Chu meets Mrs Chen, a cookery teacher working in the same building as him, and romance seems to be blossoming, Alex tries to nudge them towards getting together in the hope of getting rid of him. The elderly couple smell a rat though and refuse to be manipulated as tensions reach boiling point.
I found this a little disappointing. It felt rather slight, which isn’t necessarily a problem. I’m a big fan of subtlety in drama. I love Ozu’s work for instance, but I find Ozu’s still, slow and quiet dramas manage to get under your skin and move you, whereas I didn’t find the story all that touching here. A couple of sillier scenes let things down a little. Mr Chu’s Tai-Chi skills play a key role in the film and at times they look unrealistic in amongst a fairly naturalistic drama. Saying that, I like the way the film integrates the philosophy of Tai-Chi into the film’s core themes and message. It just doesn’t demonstrate the martial art’s force very realistically in a couple of important moments.
This is a fairly minor quibble though I guess. I think I’m finding it hard to put my finger on what I didn’t like about the film. Overall I just felt quite underwhelmed by it all. I think I was expecting a more cinematic experience too, as Lee’s work since this trilogy has often been on a grand scale or beautifully photographed. Being his first film, I’m guessing he was still finding his voice with Pushing Hands. It looks a bit like a TV movie, with largely uninteresting household sets/locations and rather bland cinematography. I think this was a bit of a turn off for me.
I did appreciate the fairly natural approach to the story though and it avoids melodrama for the most part, other than in one or two slightly hammy moments. Its messages are made a little too clear perhaps, but the presentation isn’t over the top. On a whole it’s quietly effective and not a bad film by any means, but it didn’t fill me with excitement for the rest of the set after initially being keen on working through it.
The Wedding Banquet
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Ang Lee, James Schamus
Starring: Winston Chao, Sihung Lung, May Chin, Ya-Lei Kuei, Mitchell Lichtenstein
Country: Taiwan, USA
Running Time: 106 min
BBFC Certification: 15
The Wedding Banquet was the film that really kickstarted Ang Lee’s career. It didn’t make a crazy amount of money, but it did very well for an indie drama and managed to pick up the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival as well as Best Foreign Language Film nominations at both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. However, it’s my least favourite film in the set.
The film is a lightly comic drama which sees Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) enter into a marriage of convenience with his tenant Wei-Wei (May Chin) to satisfy his nagging mother (Ya-Lei Kuei) and ageing traditional father (Sihung Lung once again – he plays a similar role in all three films). You see, Wai-Tung is gay and lives with his doting boyfriend Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein), but he refuses to admit this to his father as he doesn’t think he’ll understand and, due to his ill health, thinks the shock might kill him.
Wai-Tung thinks telling his parents he’s had a quickie marriage will shut them up, but they rush straight over for the wedding and after a gleefully unromantic ceremony in the city hall, the ‘happy couple’ are talked into hosting a huge, traditional Taiwanese wedding banquet. This puts a strain on Wai-Tung and Simon’s relationship, piling the pressure on them both and Wei-Wei to act the part. Wei-Wei throws another spanner in the works further down the line and chaos ensues.
I say chaos, but this is another fairly low key affair. That’s the film’s strongest attribute too. The story could easily become a big dumb farce and I imagine there are films like that around. Instead, the material is handled sensitively, without camp or bombast.
However, I found a few of the plot points rather cliché and predictable. I don’t want to give too much away, but amidst the generally subtle and realistic drama, there are a couple of big twists that seem straight out of a generic TV melodrama, that spoiled the film for me. In particular I felt the film’s final act faltered due to a revelation that ruins any potential to pay off the drama that had been built up. This makes the whole affair end with a sentimental whimper.
So, like with Pushing Hands, I was quite disappointed with The Wedding Banquet. It has its moments and the light comedy works better here than before, but I found it lacked drama once again, largely due to some poor writing decisions towards the end.
Eat Drink Man Woman
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Ang Lee, James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang
Starring: Sihung Lung, Yu-Wen Wang, Chien-Lien Wu, Kuei-Mei Yang
Country: Taiwan, USA
Running Time: 124 min
BBFC Certification: 15
I watched these in order, so after feeling a bit let down by the previous two films, I kept putting off watching the final part of the trilogy, Eat Drink Man Woman. It’s the longest of the three and after finding the others rather slow, I was dreading the probable long slog ahead. However, I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.
Eat Drink Man Woman once again sees Sihung Lung as the elderly head of a household. Here he’s called Chu and is the father of three grown daughters; Jai-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) is the youngest and a student/fast-food waitress, Jai-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu) is an independent business woman and Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) is the eldest, a teacher who has found religion. They’re all at a time in their lives when they’re ready (or almost ready in Jai-Chen’s case) to leave home to start a family of their own. Jai-Chen has already found an apartment in fact and has a boyfriend and a blossoming career. However, all three are aware of how traditional their chef father is and their mother died when they were young, so they don’t want to leave him on his own. As the daughters start to find love, it looks as though it’s going to be difficult to keep them where they are though and Sihung Lung must come to terms with this whilst the women have to make some difficult decisions of their own.
What struck me straight away about Eat Drink Man Woman was how much more cinematic and classy it looked. Branching out to using more of a range of locations helps, but the cinematography is noticeably better too. It’s a lot more interesting, with some long steadycam shots through Chu’s huge restaurant kitchen standing out with their ambition and frantic pace. The editing is more interesting too, with a strong use of cross-cutting and the inclusion of some sharply cut montages, as well as some nice uses of contrasting sound and music.
Yes, the film is still quite slow moving, but I didn’t mind it so much here. Again, the story is sensitively handled, so the subtlety is never going to produce a rip roaring ride. I think the pace worked better here because I got more involved with the characters and the writing was stronger. There are no cheesy twists here. There are a couple of shock revelations, but they’re actually a surprise to the audience and are amusingly presented during the regular family Sunday dinners when ‘announcements’ are often made. The way things turn out in the end are surprising in general and the ‘twists’ are never overplayed, keeping with the sensitive feel of the film.
Food plays a big part, as you might guess from the title. The preparation and enjoyment of meals are used as a metaphor for the film’s key themes of love, commitment and family. It also makes for some wonderful ‘food porn’. The cooking scenes are intoxicating to watch as you get to see some masterful hands at work, creating some amazing looking dishes. The film doesn’t shy away from showing what went into the meals either, showing the animals being caught and prepared for the dining table.
Overall, it’s a sweet and gentle family drama that takes its time and isn’t much of a tear-jerker, but is beautifully handled and quietly touching.
The Ang Lee Trilogy is out on DVD on August 24th in the UK, released by Altitude Film Distribution. The picture quality is OK. There’s no damage (not that the films are old enough to be too damaged), but the picture isn’t as sharp as some releases and the colours can be a little washed out, particularly in Eat Drink Man Woman which occasionally has a strange hazy look to it. Audio is fine. I didn’t notice any issues.
There are no on-disc special features, which is a shame, but there is an introductory booklet written by Ang Lee expert Whitney Dilley, author of The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen. I didn’t get a copy of this with my screeners so I can’t comment on the quality, but it’s nice to see something has been included with the set for some extra background information on the films.