Director: Tsao Jui-yuan
Screenplay: Chen Shih-chieh, Hsu Wei-ching, Zhou Yanzi, Hsu Li-Kong
Cinematography: Chin Ting-chang
Cast: Kenneth Tsang, Grace Kuei, Huo Siyan, Blue Lan, Jiang Mengjie.
Runtime: 107 min
Distribution: Tang Moon International
Film’s official website: N/a
Subtitled DVD and Bluray (All Region) are available via Yesasia.com.
Nearly twenty years ago there was Ang Lee’s 《饮食男女》 (Yǐnshí nánnǚ/Eat Drink Man Woman, Taiwan, 1994). It was one of those films that everyone watched (it was both a box office and a critical success) and that also travelled well – even people who don’t generally watch Asian cinema will often have seen it. I myself came across Eat Drink Man Woman in a school library in Costa Rica (a country where non-Hollywood films are hard to come by) back in 2005 or 2006. While I can’t remember much in detail, I do recall enjoying it – enough to get excited when 《饮食男女2》 (Yǐnshí nánnǚ 2, literally Eat Drink Man Woman 2) was announced in 2012. Officially titled Joyful Reunion in English, the film was billed as sequel to Lee’s and featured a similar storyline, revolving, like the original, around a single father, his grown-up daughters and food.
A joyful reunion it is, alas, not. Ang Lee has been replaced by Tsao Jui-yuan, a newbie filmmaker directing only his second feature, who, according to this source, stated that he had no intention of competing with original director, but wanted to simply tell another generation’s story with similar basic ingredients. Tsao’s own approach unfortunately demonstrates none of Lee’s sensitivities, whether in terms of cinematic narrative, character development or social critique.
Tang Shizhe (Kenneth Tsang) is an elderly chef and owner of a successful high-class restaurant that specialises in Buddhist vegetarian fusion cuisine in Hangzhou, China. After a complaint from a loyal customers Shizhe realises that he can no longer cook like he used to and is soon diagnosed with Alzheimers. He initially hides his illness from his two daughters, Wa’er (Huo Siyan) and Xiaolan (Jiang Mengjie), but then shocks them with his decision to close the restaurant. Intertwined with this narrative thread is a second one involving Wa’er’s long-distance boyfriend Chang Chuen (Blue Lan). Normally based in Taiwan, Chang travels to China with his auntie Pai Ping (aka Apple, played by Grace Kuei), who believes that her nephew’s love life needs her expert help. Pai invites herself to the luxury resort that Wa’er manages and immediately stirs up trouble with her frank manner, repeatedly grabbing the hotel’s dance teacher for a swirl around the room or incorrectly accusing Wa’er’s superior of sending his employee flowers to seduce her. While a potentially interesting story might have been developed from these narrative conflicts, Tsao offers little more than sluggish scenes with individuals that lounge about and moan about this and that.
The characters in general are one-dimensional. Although the meddling auntie injects some energy and mild entertainment into the story with her out-of-control antics, she is, like every other person in the film, nonetheless moulded around a particular stereotype and predictable in her behaviour. Other characters are even more unimaginative: Wa’er is an incredibly beautiful, impeccably dressed and utterly perfect (you name it) career woman but lacks any real kind of personality that would actually make her interesting as a character. She would seem best matched with a wealthy and equally successful husband, yet is instead dating a somewhat geeky computer game designer, who is sweet & nice but also just a little too young for her.1 It is not clear why exactly Wa’er is attracted to him or what kind of interests they share that would allow this relationship to be compelling.
Xiaolan, the second and younger sister, is even more forgettable. She pops up every now then, at the parental dining table or by the side of her boyfriend. Her non-story eventually culminates in insta-dumping her guy after seeing him with another woman at a music gig. Given that the other woman is in fact her boyfriend’s sister (Xiaolan stomps off without even trying to clarify the situation) and Xiaolan apparently already in her mid- to late twenties, it’s difficult to have any thoughts about this scenario other than What an airhead.
That leaves the social dilemmas, which were yet another poignant highlight of the original Yǐnshí nánnǚ. Tsao does make an attempt here – very half-heartedly. The father character’s affliction with Alzheimer is a valid topic, but woefully under-explored. Limiting the issue to the moment in which Shizhe reveals his diagnosis to his children and an add-on mini-scene at the end of the film, when the old man, no longer able to recognise anyone, is happily toddling about his garden with Pai by his side, the director provides pretty much the most superficial and unrealistic portrayal of the disease and the affect it has on Alzheimer sufferers and their families that he could have opted for. The second attempt at social critique is a reference to the Chinese Civil War and the suffering and hardship it caused, but the issue is again peripheral, as the film’s focus is the present: a time in which all the characters live in comfortable, unexplained (we don’t really know Shizhe’s journey from absolute poverty to successful gourmet restaurant owner) and unquestioned luxury that many viewers will not find easy to relate to. The high living – and other details of the story – also don’t always quite add up: Chang, for example, has a rather too large flat for someone who seems to be still very much at the beginning of his career and his shuttling between Taiwan and China as if it were only a half-hour metro ride than a flight2.
If there is anything positive to say about Joyful Reunion it is the mouthwatering food that is served throughout the film, enhanced by the generally very pretty cinematography that highlights everything from the picturesque settings to the beautiful actors. These elements, however, are packaging: with nothing of substance, nothing of originality inside – no worthwhile story, no intriguing characters – Joyful Reunion is rather tedious let-down.
1 They may in fact be the same age, however, they seem to be at rather different stages of life. Wa’er gave me the impression of a career woman whose evening of choice is a fancy dinner out, while Cheng seems like the guy that just graduated from uni and still plays computer games the night through. While very different individuals like this might still be together, I’m afraid it’s just not clear to me why Wa’er and Cheng are.
2 Flight time between Taipei and Hangzhou is, according to Google, around 50 minutes. That does make the ‘shuttling’ more credible, but not something foreign viewers would be know about. I confess, I found the two-city setting initially confusing and, ultimately, pointless. I’m guessing it was the result of Joyful Reunion being a Chinese-Taiwanese co-production?
Rating: 4/10 (That’s three points for all the food porn and one for the eye candy of Blue Lan. X_X)
Overall verdict: Misleadingly billed as the sequel to Ang Lee’s splendid 1994 Eat Drink Man Woman, Tsao Jui-yuan’s film is everything but a joyful reunion – it’s a shallow tale in shiny packaging which may share the basic ingredients of the original story, but none of its charm and depth.
- Alternative reviews, pretty much all in agreement that this film is a disappointment: Filmbiz.asia, Taipei Times, China.org.cn, Variety and Straight.com.
- I still wouldn’t mind if someone decided to release a cookbook for all the food served in the film though…
- I watched the film with a friend who dances and who was unimpressed with auntie’s all-over-the-hotel twirling.
(Second poster: The second guy is a colleague of Wa’er’s, who has about three minutes screen time and has very little significance. I think this is another example where the film producers went for the pretty instead of something that actually would make sense. Fourth poster is for Lee’s film.)