The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.
The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.
In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.
Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.
After yesterday‘s peculiar mixing of styles I immediately stumbled across another example with this melo-noir. The reasons for the strange combination are easy to trace through the scriptwriters: Sam Fuller’s noir script, good guy brought down by bad woman (who is really good), was rewritten by Helen Deutsch of National Velvet (1944) fame. In its widest sense most films are melodrama as they require a contrived narrative and character types to function as mainstream texts but in this context the melodrama refers to the way, as Slant magazine has it, Deutsch ‘lobotomized’ the noirintentions.
Whilst the enigma of Patricia Knight’s femme fatale is interesting – is she as bad as she appears? – the schmaltzy home environment of the schmuck (Cornel Wilde), complete with ‘cute’ kid brother and smiling blind mother, suffocates the nihilism that John Baragrey’s bad guy struggles to sell (the ending is terrible).
Sirk’s expressionist visual style, that is celebrated in the melodramas that were to follow in the ’50s, is directly wedded to noir‘s visual style, if not the narrative. As can be seen in the publicity photo above, chiaroscuro lighting is present but my overall impression when watching the film was it is not one that relishes the noir visual style. Knight’s femme fatale, however, could be the cousin of Gilda who did go wrong. Sirk seems most interested in the interiors of the home, the key setting for melodrama.
Cornel Wilde has the thankless task of the parole officer who is unbelievably ‘good’. One thing noir movies reeked of was sex but Wilde’s far to anodyne here (not blaming him specifically – could be the script). It’s as if the Production Code had been swallowed when noir movies tended to push it as far as they could.
Apparently Sirk was so disillusioned with Hollywood after making the film he returned to Europe. Fortunately he came back to make some of the greatest Hollywood films of the era.
Talking Pictures’ synopsis, along with the title, suggests a cautionary tale:
A young Welsh girl leaves her home with the intention to seek a glamorous life in London.
‘Sixties British cinema regularly dealt with the dangers of London for provincial girls; as in The Pleasure Girls though in Smashing Time (1967) the girls do have fun. The opening sequence, with some excellent handheld camerawork, shows Jennie Jones (Janet Munro) trashing a place; she’s drunk and very unhappy. Most of the film is a flashback showing how she came to be in that predicament.
The early scenes, in ‘the valleys’ near Cardiff make it quite clear why Jennie has to escape so on one level she comes across as strong because leaving is the only option. However once in London she is economically dependent (upon ‘nice guy’ Bob – John Stride). She’s also shown to be overly-influenced by the glamour marketed by advertising; thought to be a female weakness at the time. That Jennie seems at once a protagonist and a victim must be, in large part, due to Munro’s marvellous performance. She’s given top billing and later became familiar in Disney films; she also appeared in The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961). She died in 1972, apparently from an alcohol related illness.
Strikingly the film is shot in colour, a rarity in cinema at the time. It was produced by the prolific Independent Artists (their fêted This Sporting Life was also released in 1963) and marketed as an exploitation movie as can be seen from the poster below.
Peter Graham Smith’s direction is good and some of the editing, where an extreme close up of a character’s face appears for a very short amount to time, is highly distinctive.
Ted Willis adapted Patrick Hamilton’s novel 20,000 Streets Under the Sky and it suffers from the poor pacing of Jennie’s downfall. We know from the start it’s going to end badly but the ‘fall’ is too precipitous giving the film an abrupt ending. That said, it’s worth watching for Munro alone.
The Little Stranger is a beautifully made film adapted from a celebrated novel and directed by a ‘name’ director. It has four well-known star actors playing the leads and I liked it very much. It is also slow and in some ways sombre and its presentation from the distributors (Pathé/Fox in the UK) risks alienating its audience. Certainly that appears to have been the case in the US where it died in its second week, generating only $210 per screen from 477 screens. Its first weekend in the UK was poor but not disastrous, with a screen average of just over £1,000 from 297 screens giving it 13th place in the weekly chart. I suspect the film will skew older and therefore mid-week box office might be better.
The problem is that some audiences might be expecting a ghost story/horror film/haunted house picture when in fact it is a gothic melodrama set very carefully in 1948. Some IMDb comments suggest that for some US audiences the narrative will be bewildering but for older and more aware UK audiences, it should resonate.
Outline (NO SPOILERS!)
The film is adapted from the 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, her third to be Booker Prize nominated. She followed the 2006 The Night Watch, set in wartime 1940s London with a story set in 1948 during the period of the 1945-50 Labour government which transformed the UK. She claimed that this was a novel about a socialist Britain undergoing change.
Dr Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a GP (General Practitioner) in rural Warwickshire, a 37 year-old bachelor somewhat reluctant to embrace the National Health Service which is slowly being introduced. One day he is summoned to ‘Hundreds Hall’, the local stately home now beginning to decay as inheritance tax bites into the upper middle-classes’ wealth. He’s been there once before as an 8-year-old boy in 1919 when the hall was still in its Imperial pomp putting on a show for the local villagers, but now he finds the young heir Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) to be a disabled RAF veteran, supported by his sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and his mother (Charlotte Rampling). Faraday has been called to see young Betty, the only servant left. Betty is frightened and miserable rather than sick and there is a suggestion that there is something in the great house which is not quite right. Faraday finds himself curiously drawn into the world of the Ayres, first treating Roderick’s condition and then becoming more deeply involved in the family’s affairs. It will be some time before Faraday becomes fully aware of the symptoms and the extent of the family’s decline. How he reacts to events and what he attempts to do (or not do) forms the basis of the narrative.
As directed by Lenny Abrahamson from a script by Lucinda Coxon, The Little Stranger is a slow-burning gothic tale well-served by Ole Bratt Birkeland’s cinematography and music by Abrahamson’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rennicks. Production design, art direction, costume, sound design, location scouting etc. are all top-notch. The key is restraint – and repression. Gleeson seems to me to be both perfect for the role, but also in one sense ‘wrong’ somehow. (He’s actually a year younger than Ruth Wilson, but his character is meant to be ten years older than hers – I suppose that means she is also wrong for the role, but I don’t think it’s important). More important is Gleeson’s very severe appearance as Faraday and his carefully researched accent – which gives his narration a restrained rationality. We don’t get a first name for Faraday (named for the scientist?). The use of the surname puts the doctor in his place in terms of social class. The upper classes always used surnames in social situations, especially the men, following public school practice. Faraday addresses his patient as ‘Roderick’ or ‘Rod’ but if they were social acquaintances he would have called him ‘Ayres’.
The Little Stranger is all about social class. In some ways, Faraday is a working-class Tory. This has been a fairly common tradition in the UK in rural areas, especially in the families of servants (Faraday’s mother was a maid at the ‘big house’). But Faraday is made more complex by specific lines of dialogue in which he reveals some contradictory views about the Labour government’s policies. The real discourse about class focuses on the house which is crumbling physically and metaphorically as a symbol of the decline of the Ayres and their ilk. Most commentators have referred to Abrahamson’s last film Room because it featured in the 2017 Oscars, but I was reminded of What Richard Did (Ireland 2012) which also featured social class in quite subtle ways and was for me a more interesting film than Room.
Sarah Waters says of her initial research for the novel that she watched the films of the period, read popular novels and looked for the ‘voices’ of ordinary people. She kept in mind novels by the likes of Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca 1941 by Hitchcock), Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc. Thinking about it now, I wonder if she watched I Walked With a Zombie (1943) the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur film loosely based on Jane Eyre that has some elements in common with The Little Stranger, including the ambiguity of events. Are they supernatural or the result of some kind of psychological disturbance? There are several shots of staircases that suggest a Hitchcockian narrative.
What is fascinating and satisfying about Waters’ complex narrative that is well-served here is that it has so many layers and narrative possibilities. The set-up offers us a potential romance between Faraday and Caroline and there is a key scene at a dance which I won’t spoil, except to point out that this is the only one of Waters’ narratives not to include a lesbian relationship. All we know about Caroline is that she was involved in the war effort but came back to the hall to help care for her brother. Many younger people during the war were politicised by the experience of ‘social mixing’ and in some ways Caroline is to the left of Faraday. As for Faraday himself , we also know only a little of his history. His parents struggled to give him an education and after qualifying as a doctor he spent the war years working in a military hospital. He has the chance to work in London but he seems obsessed with staying in the village. If this was a film made in the 1940s the central character might have been played by David Farrar or James Mason, both actors with very different personae to that of Domhnall Gleeson. I’m racking my brain to think of a 1940s cinema equivalent of the Faraday character and the actor who might play him. Trevor Howard seems a bit to smooth/posh.
Who or what is ‘The Little Stranger’? The people around me in the cinema seem to have made up their minds, but I think it is an open question. I’ll have to back to the novel, since I’ve forgotten Sarah Waters’ original ending. Perhaps I don’t want an ending anyway? The metaphor of the crumbling mansion, the new homes being built in the grounds by the local council and so on are fine for me. I note a couple of American reviews who see this as about ‘Britain in decline’. For me, 1948 signals the re-birth of Britain as a more equal society. Unfortunately the new world was not to last, but sweeping away the old to make room for the new is to be celebrated isn’t it? Perhaps ‘The Little Stranger’ is the infant welfare state?
Here’s the official UK trailer (with a few more spoilers than presented in the text above):
My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.
The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.
As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.
There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant. The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).
A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage. Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.
Is one of the best films of the year so far.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.