The Cruel Sea (UK 1953)

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The mental scars of war

As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.

Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.

Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London(1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.

The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.

The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.

Puzzle (US 2018)

Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert outside the ‘puzzle shop’

Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.

Agnes completes her first puzzle

Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.

The family at the dinner table, from left Louie (David Denman), Gabe (Austin Abrams), Gabe’s girlfriend Nikki (Liv Hewson), Agnes and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler)

She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)

Out of the house and walking across Manhattan

What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.

Agnes at the cabin by the lake

The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.

Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.

Panavision in Pictures

This is an exhibition at the Bradford’s Media Museum. Note it is on the wall opposite the entrance to the Imax screens, easy to miss. These are a selection of photographs from a collection at the Museum with explanatory captions.

The photographs are the work of Ken Danvers [1911 to 1980], a photographer who specialised in working on film sets. He was particular favourite with David Lean. His collection has been placed in the Museum.

The selection in this exhibition is of films shot in Super Panavision 70 and Ultra Panavision 70. These were both large-scale formats with a very high quality definition and contrast. The latter has only been seen in recent years in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015).

The stills on show include Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and Lord Jim (1965). Danvers was a skilled photographer. There are interesting shots of the director, stars and craftspeople at work and shots of the stellar moments in the films.

The exhibition runs until the end of October. It is worth a few minutes extra when you go along to a movie. Though you may be reminded of the great Billy Wilder’s line,

“it’s the picture that got small’.

Yardie (UK 2018)

Aml Amin is ‘D’, a ‘soldier’ in a Kingston gang

It is surprising that there are so few films dealing with the Jamaican-UK connection in the last 30-40 years, so Yardie is very welcome. The film is an adaptation of a popular ‘street novel’ that circulated within London’s African-Caribbean communities in the 1990s. Written by Victor Headley, who arrived in the UK from Jamaica aged 12 in 1971, it struggled to find a publisher until it was taken up by X Press, a two-man operation set up by Dotun Adebayo and Steve Pope of The Voice black newspaper. Yardie was the imprint’s first publication in 1992 and it became a cult novel, selling through non-traditional outlets. During the 1990s the novel was popular but also controversial. Several different definitions of the term ‘Yardie’ are in circulation. It is a Jamaican term originally and I think I first heard it used to describe Jamaican gangsters/criminals coming to the UK and that’s certainly its meaning in the film. A ‘yard’ in Kingston refers to ‘government housing’.

The sound system dance in 1973 with D’s older brother

Yardie is Idris Elba’s first attempt to direct a feature film and it may be that Elba’s fanbase is the reason that the film was funded by StudioCanal and produced by Warp Films – and then supported by BFI and Screen Yorkshire (Warp Films is based in Sheffield and London). I realise that I’ve only seen Idris Elba in small parts early in his career but I recognise that he is now a star. He worked on the film with John Conroy, a cinematographer he knew well from the TV series Luther and he had experienced producers like Robin Gutch and Gina Carter working with him. Elba himself was born in London to African parents but he was a young man in Hackney when the novel was first circulated. He therefore had a handle on at least the Hackney end of the story. I was intrigued to note that Headley’s novel appears to have been adapted by Martin Bellman, part responsible for the scripts for the terrific Babylon (1980) and Queen and Country (1988), the latter, which I haven’t seen, featuring Denzel Washington as a British soldier back on civvy street after the Falklands War) and Brock Norman Brock writer on Bronson (2008). So, overall the film should work even if Idris Elba is inexperienced as a director. He does have plenty of experience as an actor to fall back on and he is credited as ‘Camera B Operator’.

Sheldon Shepherd as the music chief turned gang leader ‘King Fox’

The narrative outline is relatively simple. ‘D’ (for Denis) grows up in the hills above Kingston. In 1973, as a 13 year-old he ponders advice to choose the ‘righteous path’ rather than the road into criminality, but fate will push him into the ‘wrong path’ when his older brother is killed. When several years later he has become a ‘soldier’ for one of Kingston’s gang leaders he is still being visited by the ghost of his brother and is liable to become violent looking for his killer. This causes his despatch to London by the gang leader ‘King Fox’ (“to avoid war ina Kingston”). But in Hackney it is clear that the violence will continue until his brother is avenged, although D’s task is actually to shift drugs. Inevitably film critics have made comparisons with films like City of God (Brazil 2002) and London gangster films but I think it is more interesting to try to think about Jamaican and Black British films. These too are conventional  but they are also much more specific in cultural terms. 1973 when Yardie‘s story begins was the release year of The Harder They Come co-written and directed by Perry Henzell and the most celebrated Jamaican film to date, based on a legendary ‘rude boy’ figure whose story was also told in a deeply researched book by Michael Thelwell in 1980. This film about music and criminality with its use of Jamaican patois and Rasta philosophy is a rich source which Yardie draws on, but only to a limited extent. Babymother (UK 1998) is also about rival performances in the later dancehall culture of North West London, but not the same level of violent behaviour. However, it is the brief ‘family’ moments in Yardie which give it some cultural depth and that’s where the link to Babymother is so important. When D gets to London and once again starts to cause trouble, the only one he can turn to is Yvonne who we have first seen as a schoolgirl in 1973. later she became D’s babymother but has taken their small daughter to London and found work as a nurse. Yvonne and her daughter have the potential to ground D and he is indeed welcomed by Yvonne’s church.

Shantol Jackson as Yvonne outside her church

But D is also more vulnerable because of Yvonne and their daughter and this in turn plays into his criminal activities in London. This major part of the film is more conventional and less interesting for me but it too is bolstered by the authentic touches supplied by Headley’s novel and Elba’s research. I was especially impressed by the Jamaican actors Shantol Jackson as Yvonne and Sheldon Shepherd as King Fox. In the Jamaican context we see a Chinese-Jamaican character in the crime/music business and in London, Stephen Graham plays a bi-racial British Jamaican gangster ‘Rico’. Several reviewers have been bewildered by Graham’s switch from Jamaican patois to more or less Standard English in the same few lines of dialogue. But I think this is authentic. Graham himself has a Jamaican grandfather. The whole of Yardie is dependent on Aml Ameen as the grown-up D and I think he does a great job. He first came to notice as one of the leads in the 2006 film Kidulthood, the first of the so-called ‘urban films’ in the UK. These films target a broader audience of multi-racial urban youth and therefore not the same investigations of Jamaican ‘roots’ – and consequently the music background is very different. The music in Yardie is mainly ‘dancehall’ for the London scenes and I didn’t recognise much, though there are legendary performers featured such as Yellowman, Black Uhuru and snatches of Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and earlier ska bands. What sounded like a Marley song over the closing credits is I think by Skip Marley, Bob’s grandson.

Overall I think Yardie is a strong directorial debut. I would have liked more back in Jamaica, less violence and more family melodrama, but I’m not the target audience. The African-Caribbean couple in the seat in front of me clearly enjoyed the film which has done OK as a British film, but has struggled for screen space and possibly appeals to an older audience than the ‘urban films’. Ironically, it has also been up against both BlacKkKlansman and Denzel Washington’s Equalizer 2 in the last few weeks. I suspect that Yardie has played in specialised cinemas while Denzel was at the multiplex. But at least we’ve had three black films in UK cinemas at the same time. More please.

Deadfall (UK 1968)

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Sophisticated with two ‘ffs’

This is an interesting period piece: a genre movie with pretensions of art. That’s not to say I believe genre texts are not art, of course they are, but writer – director Bryan Forbes was obviously trying to channel the French ‘new wave’; with a dash of existentialism, and the shadow of the Nazis, to spice up the narrative. Michael Caine plays his laconic protagonist as a cat burglar drawn into a sort of menage a trois with Eric Portman’s gay patriarch who has Giovanna Ralli playing his wife.

Stylistically Forbes tries to enliven the material with distinctive compositions and often uses a zoom lens to pick out details; a technique fashionable at the time. One burglary is cross-cut with a performance of a guitar concerto (which the owners of house are attending) directed by the film’s composer John Barry. The sequence lasts about 15 minutes and I’ve no idea what the purpose of the cross-cutting was as it can’t be ‘will he crack the safe before the concert ends?’ could it . . . ? If so it is a perfect example of how not to generate tension. Another ‘arty’ technique is the extended lap dissolves during a post-coital conversation with a crossed 180° line.

The credit sequence, with animated graphics, was graced by a belter by Shirley Bassey and seemed to suggest a Bond-type film. Caine had just come off the third and final Harry Palmer film, Billion Dollar Brain (UK, 1967), and I’m guessing audiences didn’t get what they expected from Deadfall. Another eccentricity is the casting of Nanette Newman as – in ‘swinging ’60s parlance – ‘the girl’. Apart from a brief early appearance, the film’s well into its second half before she gets much screen time and she’s listed fourth in the credits (being the director’s wife may have helped). The eccentricity is not the casting as such, Newman does ditzy well (another ’60s characteristic of attractive young women) but she is entirely unimportant to the narrative. Maybe that’s the point and Forbes was playing with filmic convention.

Deadfall may not have seemed good when it was released, Roger Ebert was not impressed, and it certainly hasn’t dated well.

Eyewitness (UK 1956)

Eyewitness is an example of the most prolific type of 1950s British film, the modestly-budgeted crime film. However, it has several interesting elements which aren’t all that common, being directed by Muriel Box and scripted by Janet Green. Nick wrote recently about another Muriel Box film, Street Corner (1953). He noted that the credits of the print he watched seemed to suggest the film was directed by the producer, William MacQuitty. Nick suggested that this might be for American audiences who might be put off by a female director. I find this odd since the several Muriel Box films I’ve seen tend to describe her as an Oscar winner (for the script of The Seventh Veil, UK 1947 – shared with her husband Sydney). Muriel Box, like her sister-in-law, producer Betty Box, was a stalwart of 50s British cinema and was contracted to Rank from 1956-9.

Janet Green was an actor, retiring in 1945 and concentrating on writing. Her first success was The Clouded Yellow in 1950 and in 1956 The Long Arm (for Ealing). Later she wrote a trio of ‘problem pictures’ for Michael Relph and Basil Dearden – Sapphire (1959), Victim (1961) and Life for Ruth (1962). Her last film was 7 Women for John Ford (1966). She then moved over to TV. So, did the influence of these two women have a significant impact on this seemingly conventional film? Sydney Box produced the film and it was edited by Jean Barker, who worked with Muriel Box on several films, including Street Corner. I think the three women working on this film did have an impact, even though the protagonists are two men.

Lucy is knocked down by a bus

The film is a concise 82 minutes and the plot in outline is very simple. Lucy (Muriel Pavlow) comes home from work to discover that her husband Jay (Michael Craig) has bought a new TV set ‘on tick’ (credit). The couple have a nicely furnished suburban house but Lucy is well aware of the dangers of ‘live now, pay later’. The couple row and Lucy storms out of the house. She ends up in a cinema, quietly fuming. Meanwhile Jay goes out to the pub. Lucy inadvertently sees two men robbing the safe in the cinema manager’s office and runs when the men see her. When she runs into the street she is knocked down by a bus and ends up in hospital. So far so conventional. But the two safe-breakers turn out to be a mis-matched pair played by Donald Sinden and Nigel Stock. The Sinden character is a nasty piece of work and he decides to follow the ambulance to the local ‘country hospital’, just out of town (dragging the reluctant Stock character with him). He’s quite prepared to break into the hospital and kill Lucy if she has survived being run over.

The nurse (Belinda Lee) with her American boyfriend Mike (David Knight). Will she be too distracted to save Lucy?

I won’t spoil the plot any further. What interests me is that with Lucy hors de combat, Jay eventually searching for her unaware of what has happened and the police faced with an unidentified woman in hospital, who is going to protect her from Sinden’s attack? Probably not the hospital surgeon and anaesthetist (Nicholas Parsons and Richard Wattis, now usually seen as vaguely comic character actors). No, it must be the women in the female ward where Lucy lies struggling for consciousness. What struck me was just how well Green’s script and Box’s direction manage to make what might be a fairly banal situation into something quite gripping. There are a number of interesting little sub-plots but Lucy’s protectors turn out to be a little girl, an elderly woman patient (Ada Reeve) and the ward nurse (Belinda Lee). Belinda Lee is the third lead in the film. She was a Rank starlet already with several significant credits to her name aged only 20 but she would die in a car crash in the US aged only 25.

I enjoyed the film and thanks must go yet again to Talking Pictures TV. This film is not mentioned in several of the key film studies texts on 50s British cinema. I hadn’t heard of it before, even though I thought I knew the work of Muriel Box and Janet Green. I’m pleased to have seen it and it confirms my belief that 50s British cinema is more interesting than most critics – and scholars – would like us to think.

Not Just Bollywood at HOME Manchester

Last year’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ mini-season at HOME in Manchester was a very welcome development and a second season runs this September, again curated by Omar Ahmed. In a special HOME podcast, Omar explains that the first season was an attempt to introduce audiences to the range of independent Indian films that struggle to get a release in the UK and sometimes back in India as well. The second season moves on to look at some of the issues that independent Indian films might explore  and which they might be able to present more effectively than the mainstream.

The season opens with a classic example of a film that proved highly controversial in India. Bandit Queen (India-UK 1994) is a biopic of Phoolan Devi directed by Shekhar Kapur and starring Seema Biswas in the title role. Channel 4 in the UK was a major funder of the film so it did receive a UK cinema release and has been shown on Channel 4, but it’s great that younger audiences will have the chance to see  the film again on the big screen on 11th September. One of several issues associated with Bandit Queen is caste and that is also at the centre of the other major film in the season which has a high international reputation, Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) from the great political documentarist Anand Patwardhan. The dalit cultural resistance highlighted in this film is linked to the central issue in Court (India 2014) which featured in last year’s season. Jai Bhim Comrade is a long but highly engaging film that is a must see if you get the chance. It’s screening on Sunday 16th.

A ‘One Hour intro’ on ‘Caste on the Indian Screen’ by Sanghita Sen precedes the screening of Bandit Queen and a discussion, ‘Re-Imagining Caste in Indian Cinema‘ will follow the screening of Masaan (India 2015) on September 18. This début film by Neeraj Ghaywan is a Cannes prizewinner.

Kadvi Hawa (India 2017) sounds like a classic ‘parallel film’ dealing with the impact of climate change on debt-ridden farmers in Rajasthan. Director Nila Madhab’s film has a terrific cast with Sanjay Mishra, lead in last year’s well-received Ankhon Deki (India 2013) plus Ranvir Shorey and Tillotama Shome, two stars who straddle independent and mainstream Indian films. Kadvi Hawa screens on September 13th. The Hungry (UK-India 2017) is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and stars the peerless Naseeruddin Shah. It screens on September 15th and is followed by a Q&A with producer Kurban Kassam and actor Antonio Aakeel. Finally on September 30th, Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (India 2017) is another début film, this time by director Aditya Kripalani. It deals with female sex workers coming together to start a revolution and will be introduced by Omar Ahmed himself.

Full details are in the programme brochure which you can download here. If you are in the Manchester area in September these rare screenings and events are not to be missed.

Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shi nan nu, Taiwan-US 1994)

The ritual of the family Sunday meal

Eat Drink Man Woman is the third film in the loose trilogy of features that form the first stage in Ang Lee’s directorial career. Although made in Taiwan and presented in Mandarin, it feels like a ‘transnational film’, a traditional Chinese (family) melodrama filtered through an American sense of international cinema. It’s co-scripted by Lee’s long-time contributor James Schamus and Taiwanese writer Wang Hui-Ling (who would go to script Lee’s other Chinese films). I can’t quite put my finger on why this Taiwanese film might have faint American feel – other than Lee and Schamus sharing time together in the US. Immediately after this production Lee directed his first English language film and tackled an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – not perhaps an enormous leap from a Taiwanese family drama.

The middle daughter Jia-Chen (Wu Chien-Lien) is the business high-flyer

There is a useful overview of Ang Lee’s early career by David Minnihan on Senses of Cinema in its ‘Great Directors’ section. He discusses Lee’s move to the US for his education and his subsequent early production career. Minnihan takes an auteurist approach in which he sees Lee’s early work, especially the ‘Father Knows Best’ trilogy of Pushing Hands (1991), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) as an expression of Lee’s difficult relationship with his own father. The same actor, Lung Sihung, plays the father in each of these otherwise unrelated family comedy-dramas (as IMDb lists them). Each of the three is a Taiwan-US production. I haven’t seen the first two films but they both appear to deal with Taiwanese migrants in the US. Coming at Eat Drink Man Woman from a slightly different angle my first question concerns Lee’s Taiwanese background and why he doesn’t seem to be more closely concerned with the work of the Taiwanese directors who comprised the ‘New Taiwanese Cinema’ (NTC) of the 1980s. Lee was born in 1954 making him around seven years younger than the two most prominent directors of NTC, Hou Hsaio-Hsen and Edward Yang. Lee would have been in America finishing his Film MA when Hou and Yang began making their first NTC films. He wouldn’t make his own Taiwan-set film until Eat Drink Man Woman and he was surprised at the changes in Taipei when he returned. In some ways, Eat Drink Man Woman is similar to Yang’s masterpeice Yi Yi (Taiwan-Japan 2000) but Lee had not spent twenty years exploring the social history of Taiwan since 1945 like Hou and Yang.

The youngest daughter Jia-Ning (Wang Yu-Wen) is a ‘modern’ teenager

The family at the centre of the film comprises the father on the brink of retirement and his three grown-up daughters. Father is the joint top chef of a prestigious restaurant. He has a well-equipped kitchen at home with everything he needs to create a feast and every Sunday he cooks an enormously elaborate meal which has become the setting for the weekly family meeting. Important announcements will be made at this meal but much of the time the four family members don’t really communicate. Lee spends a great deal of time (and expense) showing the father making such a lunch and I was pained to see how little of it was actually eaten. A similar amount of care goes into a long tracking shot which follows the chef through the restaurant and into the kitchens when he is summoned in an emergency. It’s tempting to see this as Lee trying out the kind of long-take style demonstrated via a similar shot in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (US 1990). Something similar, though in a very different location, occurs in the large high school where the eldest daughter teaches. The camera follows the teacher down the open walkways around the large playground where volleyball is being played. This combines a long shot and long take approach. Lee also employs a long shot of a Taipei crossroads with heavy traffic much like a ‘pillow shot’ in an Ozu film.

The eldest daughter Jia-Jen (Yang Kuei-Mei) is a teacher – stuck in a rut?

The eldest daughter is introduced as a kind of ‘old maid’ character who was jilted by a lover at university and has now converted to Christianity and adopted a subdued approach to life. The middle daughter is in some ways the key character. In Minnihan’s terms she is the character who embodies Lee’s own feelings. As a teenager she had shown the most interest in cooking and wanted to be a chef or a restaurateur only to be discouraged by her father and urged to continue her education. Now she is the high-flyer, working for an airline in a senior position and wondering whether to stay in Taiwan or work abroad. The youngest daughter (whose story seems to get the least attention) works in a fast-food outlet and is seeking her independence. Her father seems less concerned about her ‘challenge’ to his love of fine cooking.

New visitors at the table and father is still entertaining

Each of the family members has a story and the narrative moves between the four stories, bringing them together at the Sunday meal. As I’ve indicated, the main story for me is that of daughter No 2 played by Wu Chien-Lien. There are also other significant characters like the other top chef ‘Old Wen’ whose actions provide a contrast (or a warning?) for the father. I did find the introduction of another set of characters quite confusing. I think these are ‘returnees’ from a previous migration and a failed marriage who are invited to stay in the family house. Lian Jin-Rong and her mother knew the chef’s family when Jin-Rong (Sylvia Chang) was a girl who played with the three daughters. Now she has a child of her own and needs to re-start her life. Her predicament and that of her mother has a bearing on what will happen to the father/chef in perhaps surprising ways.

My overall view is that Eat Drink Man Woman is a carefully scripted, very well-acted film narrative skilfully constructed by Ang Lee and his crew. I watched it on my TV via MUBI in two or three parts which isn’t ideal and therefore I’m not sure if I’m being fair in suggesting that the film doesn’t in the end ‘lift off’ to become something really distinctive and that’s perhaps what suggests a kind of ‘internationalism’ about it – as if it doesn’t quite have the confidence to be a ‘contemporary Taiwanese’ story. It explores migration, education and other familiar issues but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like other Taiwanese films I’ve watched. I’ve tended to think that Ang Lee’s best films have been based on acclaimed novels/short stories, e.g. The Life of Pi or Brokeback Mountain. On the other hand it could be that there are too many central characters and not enough time to explore them all in detail? In a family melodrama like this the central conflict needs a strong focus and here the youngest daughter seems like a peripheral character. Even so, I feel like I’ve learned more about Ang Lee’s work and I’m primed to watch some other Taiwanese melodramas in my unwatched piles of DVDs.