Yin shi nan nu (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Every Sunday, the Chu household, led by master chef Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), sit and have dinner together, a chance for them to catch up on each other’s busy lives. Although Mr. Chu and his three daughters live under the same roof, he thinks he does not understand them. He simply waits until it is time for the girls to move out but he ought not hold his breath.
The eldest, Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mai Yang), is a teacher who still has not gotten over her boyfriend from nine years ago. Meanwhile, the youngest, Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), is still in school and finds herself attracted to her best friend’s boyfriend. The most promising daughter who might potentially move out first is Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu), a successful director in an airline company with an upcoming promotion to Amsterdam.
“Yin chi nan nu,” also known as “Eat Drink Man Woman,” is a joyful celebration of a family that wants to be free from one another while at the same time struggles to remain connected in order to have a place of comfort when life pushes too hard.
Although the circumstances surrounding the sisters seem cliché, like Jia-Jen receiving anonymous love letters every morning and Jia-Ning serving as a mediator between her friend at work and the boy she has grown to like, the contrivances have enough twists to make each strand tolerable. But the stoke of genius is in the way director Ang Lee puts the subplots in a pot and mixes them to make a delectable dish. Imagine a teaspoon of salt, a raw chicken, and freshly peeled potatoes. If served as they are, not many will find them too appetizing. However, if they are mixed together and given proper time to cook, they might create a most succulent soup. The story of the Chu family is an example of the latter.
The mood of the picture is very light even when it touches upon melodramatic elements. Much of its sense of humor is embedded in the small but relatable ironies that inspire us to examine a situation rather than forcing easy laughs down our throats. For example, Mrs. Liang (Ya-lei Kuei), a friend of the family who has recently moved back from America because she did not like it there, could have been just another shrill character who needs to put her foot in her mouth. Instead, even though she is opinionated, her character is used to express what the others are already thinking but reluctant to communicate out of fear that others might take it the wrong way. One of the many ironies is that she is so busy judging other people—but without the intention of making them feel bad—and pointing out the flaws in their lives that she is blind to what is going on under her own roof.
Perhaps the picture’s biggest weapon is the number of thoughts and feelings that are never expressed. Most of us, including myself, expect for them to be revealed because we are so used to experiencing a standard dramatic structure in which at least one important confrontation is shown on screen for the sake of laying everything out on the table. But such a route of convenience is not taken here. As it is in life, we decide that some things are better off unsaid (even though they aren’t) and forever locked in our brains. We just go on and do what we can with the choices we made.