Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Al Jolson vs. Ang Lee

Al Jolson and Ang Lee
Al Jolson (l.), Ang Lee (r.)

It might seem odd to compare a Jewish Roaring Twenties singer to a Taiwanese director of the 1990s and today, but I was struck by this comparison when I noticed that Ang Lee's 1994 movie Eat Drink Man Woman is airing this Friday at 6:35 AM ET on Encore Drama.

Eat Drink Man Woman deals with a Taipei widower who is also a master chef. He's going to be forced to retire due to the fact that he's losing his sense of taste. Meanwhile, he's got three daughters, all of whom still live with him as they have not yet married. But they're all grown up, and would like to go their own way and live their own lives. The only thing is, there's this pesky little thing called tradition. Each of them feels compelled to look after their father. There's also the family tradition that they get together every Sunday afternoon for an elaborate meal. All of the daughters feel this is a serious intrusion upon their lives, and yet, whatever else is going on in their lives, they come back every Sunday for the family dinner. Indeed, many of the key scenes take place at these family banquets.

Along the way, all four of the family members find love, although each does so in his or her own way, and there are quite a few plot twists as they find love. However, this slice-of-life drama constantly seems realistic, with none of the twists appearing to be anything that wouldn't happen in real life. Eventually, all four live, if not happily ever after, whatever is the real live version of reasonably happy.

But when I noticed this movie was coming up on TV, I began to think about how it compares to The Jazz Singer. Both movies deal intimately with the theme of tradition: Al Jolson's Jakie Rabinowitz is a cantor's son who wants to make his way in the modern world (at least, the 1920s version of modern), and has to leave his family when it clashes with his father's version of what a good son should be. But of course, when the elder Rabinowitz is on his deathbed on Yom Kippur, there's only one person who can sing the Kol Nidre -- Jakie, who feels torn by that clash between tradition and his "modern" life of singing jazz songs on the Broadway stage. The two movies couldn't be more different in place an time, and yet, the theme is universal.

One word of warning, however: don't watch Eat Drink Man Woman on an empty stomach. Ang Lee makes use of unbelievably gorgeous and mouth-watering food photography. Watch for one particularly humorous scene where the father, dismayed at the food in the lunchbox of his neighbor's young granddaughter, makes much more elaborate dishes for her to take to school, leaving the entire class to savor what's in her lunch box.

No comments: