While the dinners Chef Chu prepares for his family look so delicious on the screen, Chef Chu himself can not get any pleasure from eating them: He has no sense of taste, and his relationship with his daughters is increasingly bitter. The first time we see Chef Chu enjoy eating is when he eats and drinks with his old friend, Chef Wen. There is no grand setting, they eat on a worktop in a kitchen; they enjoy no particularly refined menu, just some left over dishes from the wedding banquet that they just cooked.
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But Chu and Wen chat non-stop until both are drunk, suggesting this is certainly a much more satisfying meal to Chu than his well prepared Sunday dinner with daughters. The second time Chef Chu seems to enjoy a meal is when he tackles a lunch box prepared by his neighbour, Ching-Rong, a divorcee, for her eight-year-old daughter.
As a single mother busy with work, Ching-Rong cannot take as good care of her daughter as she would like to. Moreover, she is a lousy cook. Hence she becomes suspicious when her daughter brings home a cleared lunch box every day.
Chef Chu replies that flavour is not important to him any more as he is losing his sense of taste. He enjoys the lunch boxes because he knows that she spends a lot of effort and pours all her love of the child into preparing them. In other words, Chef Chu prefers left over dishes and tough spare ribs to his own exquisite creations.
This, in fact, is the message that the character, Chef Wen, communicates to the audience several times in the film. For example, he once compares chefs with musicians, saying a good chef such as Mr Chu does not rely on his tongue for cooking because good taste is not in the mouth just as an excellent musician such as Beethoven does not rely on his hearing for composing because good music is not in ears.
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Comparable ideas are represented elsewhere. The central character, Jang Geum, the royal chef and the only female imperial physician for the Korean emperor in the early s, temporarily damages her taste buds. Only then does she realise that the real sense of taste is not derived from mouth and tongue, but from a variety of sources such as touching, imagining, smelling, feeling and more. Since then, she begins going through life dutifully without much enjoyment and feels that this is what others expect of her. This makes it a perfect conveyor of subtext; messages which are often implicit rather than explicit, but surprisingly varied, strong and sometimes violent or subversive.
In other words, we see food and drink for her only means mundane matters and she clearly gets increasingly resentful about it. As Chia-Chen tells her sisters, she thinks she understands her parents, especially her father, more than everybody else simply because she is the eldest. She also thinks she knows what the Sunday gatherings mean to her father and secretly worries about how much longer the family tradition will last.
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Throughout the film, Chia-Chen does not find comfort in ordinary daily routines such as eating and drinking; she seeks spiritual guidance from religion. But eventually she finds liberty and happiness in love. The filmmaker did not make the contrast between Western fast food and traditional Chinese cuisine an issue in the movie.
It seems more like a truthful reflection of the major culinary trend of the s in Taiwan and some other regions of Asia. Indeed, fast food and speedy relationships are today prevailing cultural and social phenomena in traditional Confucius societies such as Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. On the surface, she enjoys a successful managerial career in an airline and is expected by everyone else to embark on a jet-set life style, all signs of a high achiever.
But deep down, her passion is in cooking for which she has received strong discouragement from her father. Nevertheless, Chia-Chian dreams of cooking freely in her own place one day. It is obvious to the audience that Chia-Chian cooks for her own enjoyment and achievement, but her lover thinks she is actually cooking for him because she loves him and wants to capture his heart by satisfying his stomach. It seems to me that Ang Lee is pointing out an irony — it is commonly believed that feminism has liberated modern women from the kitchen.
But just as they have different opinions about ways of living their lives, they have different taste in food. However, when they finally reach an understanding and accept their differences, they realise that they are indeed most alike. As it turns out, when the youngest daughter, followed by the eldest daughter, moves out of the family home to set up their own families, it is Chia-Chian, the person that everyone including the characters in the film and the viewers thought would have fled the house the earliest, who stays and keeps their father company.
More surprisingly, Chef Chu himself finds love and gets re-married. When he decides to sell their old family home in order to move to a modern but smaller flat and establish a new family with his young wife and step-daughter, it is Chia-Chian who buys the old house and holds the whole family together. Filmmaker, Dining Table and Cultural Commentaries The above discussion has echoed an analysis made by Anne Bower, editor of an excellent book on cinema and food, Reel Food.
While they drift apart, their family is gradually dissolved — reflected on screen, we have never seen a happy scene associated with their family dining table, but witnessed more and more family members missing from the same table as time progresses. Nevertheless Lee is ultimately an optimist. When the Chu family finally accepts the reality and leaves home individually to find their own happiness, they become closer again even though they do not live under the same roof any longer.
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In other words, although the old family unit breaks up, a new family unit with more members is formed where each person is allowed to be truthful to their individual desires and to pursue their own new identities. Chia-Chian takes up the job promotion offered by the airline. She decides to keep up their Sunday dinner rituals whenever she is in Taipei by taking the trouble to prepare a banquet for every family member. She does it because she wants to, not because she has to as her father used to feel.
In the final sequences, none of the family members except Chef Chu can go to the Sunday dinner Chia-Chian prepares because of other commitments. They ring Chia- Chian to apologise and have a warm and frank conversation with her instead of forcing themselves to attend the gathering. Contrasted with the first segments of the film when all sisters feel they must rush home for dinner when none of them actually feel like it, the interactions and exchanges between the family members are much more loving and relaxed than before.
Chef Chu comes from his new apartment to the old house. Chia-Chian receives her father and he comes in to sit down next to her in front of the dining table. But one thing the audience can be certain of is that Chef Chu will definitely enjoy this meal with his daughter because dining is most enjoyable when all the right conditions are in place — delicious food and drink, warm and pleasant company, comfortable settings and eaters themselves being in good health and having a joyous mood. But the film is also very much about breaking cultural stereotypes for example, Chia-Chen transforms herself from a boring school teacher to a sexy woman; Chia-Ning leaps from a university student to a wife and a mother; Chef Chu stops being simply a tired old father to three grown-up daughters and becomes a husband to a much younger bride pregnant with his baby , facing up to challenges and adapting to changes.
Individuals will need to constantly reposition and redefine themselves, just as culture will need to continuously embrace challenges and reformations in order to thrive. This symbolic imagery is not unique to film as it is present in other art forms throughout history. Although the slogan comes from a physical and health point of view, we find food can be used as an effective communicative element in movies to define who the characters are, construct their economic and social aspirations, as well as their cultural and personal identities.
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Secondly, activities concerning food, such as eating and cooking, symbolise power relations between characters. For example, when Chef Chu is in the kitchen, we know he is in charge. When the food is brought onto the dining table and his daughters begin talking over him all the time, we know Chef Chu is losing control.
But when her lover sees himself as the focus of the elaborate meal instead of giving Chia-Chian the appreciation and validation of her cooking that she craves, they quarrel bitterly. The viewers are drawn into the subtle changes of relationships between different characters simply by looking at who is cooking and who is eating. From the very long shots of how one meal is prepared — a chicken captured from the back yard, fish caught alive, frogs trying to escape from cooking vessels, display of colourful ingredients and sauces, vegetables, cutlery, and so on — we realise that food on screen is much more than food.
It is traditional Chinese culture itself which has evolved and been evolving for several thousands of years that is on display. Even though social and cultural changes are implied through the obstacles presented by modern life, the Chinese love of food will endure. Works Cited Bower, Anne L. Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film.
New York: Routledge, Chang, K. Food in Chinese Culture. Curry, Renee ed. In Perspectives on Woody Allen. Last Saturday, the Cajun cookers were at Houston Food Truck Park serving two specials alongside their usual menu: boiled crab legs and shrimp and a two-piece chicken meal.
Next to the classic duo of a crunchy chicken wing and thigh was a steaming helping of collard greens cooked with bacon strips, baked macaroni and cheese with plenty of Cheddar, and soft cornbread. Jumbo crab legs swam in a buttery brew of seasonings, red potatoes, and corn.