Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Food on the menu for Utan Kayu Film Festival

JAKARTA (JP): It's food, glorious food, explored on dining tables and in kitchens around the world, from Japan (Tampopo) to Denmark (Babette's Feast), during the Films on Food Festival at Teater Utan Kayu.

Each of the films examines the subject matter beyond the biological need of simply sustaining life, often delving into the appetizing matters of the heart. So it is with Eat Drink Man Woman, which will be shown on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., a brilliant, captivating work by Ang Lee, now the darling of Hollywood for the Oscar-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Eat Drink Man Woman (Comedy/Drama, 1994). Starring Sihung Lung (Chu), Kuei-Mei Yang (Jia Ren), Chien-Lien Wu (Jia Chien), Yu-Wen Wang (Jia Ning), Winston Chao (Li Kai). Directed by Ang Lee.

Anyone who has seen the memorable opening sequence of this movie would do better than to underestimate a chef's work. Or, for that matter, the universal healing powers of food.

Master chef Chu's dazzling, hyperkinetic rendition of what goes on in the kitchen, away from the limelight of a glitzy restaurant or a family dinner table, is so fun, so crazy, so enjoyable to watch -- and it has helped catapult this movie into the ranks of the all-time great food films.

Fresh from the international success of The Wedding Banquet, Taiwan's uber-director Lee picked up where he left off and took his passion for food to a level higher in a rare film in which food, family drama, cross-cultural dynamics and generational conflicts come together in equal measure. The uncontrived dialog, the easy rapport between the characters and the spontaneous yet nuanced characterization further distinguish it in a genre where those qualities often come second, or not at all.

The film tells of the relationship between an aging Chinese widower and his three grown-up daughters. The oldest is a shy, unmarried schoolteacher, the second a beautiful and ambitious corporate airline executive and the third a starry-eyed romantic who periodically acts as the movie's conscience. Crippled by a communication gap, their relationship finds articulation in their Sunday dinner ritual, in which the father prepares a gourmet feast fit for an emperor and, maybe, just maybe, has some sort of interaction with the girls. Here food takes the central role -- as a life-saver, a sanctuary, a common denominator, a lingua franca, the beating heart of the family.

Ang Lee's characters have a richness and depth that go way beyond stereotyping, and the comedy that ensues is natural, reality-driven and refreshingly unsentimental. Heightened by gorgeous food cinematography and an otherwise no-frills direction by a director who knows his cross-cultural issues well enough so as not to turn this movie into a rambling exercise of orientalism, this is one big-hearted celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- and the perfect meal.

Other films during the three-day festival are 1973's La Grande Bouffe with Marcello Mastroianni as one of three men engaging in orgies of feasting (Friday, 4:30 p.m.), Tampopo, a 1986 Japanese film centering on the title character's dreams of life outside a ramen noodle bar (Friday, 7:30 p.m.), Babette's Feast, with French actress Stephane Audran playing a master chef living way out on the windswept coast of Denmark caring for two sisters (Saturday, 2:30 p.m), Like Water for Chocolate (Saturday, 4:30 p.m.), 301, 302 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m.) and Big Night (Sunday, 4:30 p.m.). There will also be a discussion with culinary expert and restaurateur William Wongso at 7 p.m. on Sunday. (Laksmi P. Djohan)

Teater Utan Kayu is at Jl. Utan Kayu 68H, East Jakarta (tel. 857-3388).