Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Sung-Young is not quite a villain, per se. Rather, the matriarch of the mindbogglingly affluent Singaporean Young family is, though framed (not necessarily incorrectly) as an obstacle to Chinese-American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) in Crazy Rich Asians, more of a statue indicating history and tradition, the kind of approach to family that reads as incompatible to Rachel’s ideas of happiness. In the film, Eleanor is skeptical of how appropriate Rachel, who comes from a middle-class background and was raised by a single mother, is as a potential wife for her son Nick (Henry Golding), and the conflict between the two women exemplifies how important class and generational differences are to Asian families and culture (even broadly speaking). Much of Chinese cinema familiar to some American audiences circles around the tension between tradition and modernity, with films like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Wong Kar-wai’s period piece In the Mood for Love and the last Hollywood film to feature an all Asian cast, The Joy Luck Club, examining cross-generational divides, as well as their emotional and social consequences.
Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee has been preoccupied with the sense of dislocation brought on by modernity’s forceful hand and its subsequent dramatic changes in China. Arguably, this cognizance of how crucial class and gender are to the structure of family units, and the generational tension that disrupts them, can be seen throughout his filmography, from Brokeback Mountain to Sense and Sensibility, but it’s clearest in his earliest films, Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), which he wrote with his then creative partner James Schamus, collectively known as the “Father Knows Best” trilogy. In these three films, Lee attempts to put to blueprint the complicated emotional architecture of people bound both by heritage and the need to move forward, to find their own places in the world.
Pushing Hands is his hardest to watch, a surprisingly downbeat melodrama about an older Tai Chi master, Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), brought over to the United States by his son Alex (Bo Z Wang). With little to do other than teach Tai Chi on the weekends, Mr. Chu’s left at home with his son’s American, Caucasian novelist wife Martha (Deb Snyder), who finds his presence disruptive. As in Crazy Rich Asians, notions of success for a traditional Chinese people is not merely about money, but about the ability to be financially stable enough to take care of your parents in a hands-on manner when they’re older, approaching the idea of “caring” cyclically. In a moment of frustration, Martha refers to Mr. Chu as more like a child than an adult, one she’s forced to babysit.
Neither Martha nor Mr. Chu have bothered learning each other’s native languages, and so they go about their lives in different rooms of the same house. Mr. Chu does calligraphy while Martha writes her next novel on a Word Processor. Mr. Chu stretches for Tai Chi while Martha warms up to jog. Though the two sit and eat at the same table, their food decidedly different in preparation and presentation, they are worlds apart. Alex, of course, is caught in the middle, and while Martha frequently brings up the possibility of moving to another house with a separate space for Mr. Chu, the issue of affordability enters. It’s suggested early in the film that Alex has a strained relationship with his father, both of them survivors of the Cultural Revolution, and the impression is that, despite the attempt to bring his father to the United States to reconfigure their relationship, Mr. Chu is losing his son to America, losing touch with what it means to be traditionally Chinese. Similarly, Mr. Chu, facing a world of change and unable to find companionship, feels adrift in the world, bored by his own loneliness both at home in China and now in the US. In his directorial debut, Lee shows a keen understanding of the stifling spaces that exert a kind of oppressive power in unfamiliar territory, that implicitly force a transnational, cross generational dialogue. With minimal lighting, Lee frames the discrepancy between lives as if they’re hovering over their shoulders, always in the background and out of focus, but still a source of weight.
Anxiety takes on a different form in The Wedding Banquet, Lee’s foray into a kind of screwball comic style, and his first time examining the lives of gay people. Wai-Tung Gao (Winston Chao) is constantly badgered by his parents to get married, now that he’s in his late 20s, but as dramatic irony would have it, he’s a successful Manhattanite living with his boyfriend, Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein, son of artist Roy), the two straining to use their quick wits to come up with excuses to stave off Wai-Tung’s marriage. At the behest of Simon, as if to get Wai-Tung’s old-fashioned parents to stop bothering them, he suggests Wai-Tung marry one of his apartment tenants, in turn scoring her, Wei Wei (May Chin), a green card. The couple invite Wai-Tung’s parents to the United States, plan a large wedding and chaos ensues.
In The Wedding Banquet, homosexuality or queerness is enough to transgress tradition. Which sounds obvious but is significant not only because of Wai-Tung’s implied upper middle-class status, but because of the complicated racial dynamics that, too, exist in the film. Wai-Tung’s partnership with a white man is, not unlike the interracial marriage in Pushing Hands, easily read as either a move forward into a modern world of modern relationships, or a threat to some idea of racial purity within Asianness (anl idea in Crazy Rich Asians). The Taiwanese diaspora at work, threatening the continuation of the Gao bloodline.
When Simon drunkenly sleeps with Wei Wei, whom Wai-Tung is supposed to marry, she becomes pregnant, adding more tension to this bizarrely created quasi-family. With these varying factors of a sham marriage at work, it’s hard to pin down which of them is most threatening in terms of a sense of dislocation for traditional Asians; it’s the lack of concreteness, the supposed absence of foundation, implied to be an ultimate offense. Nothing real and sustainable could be borne from this—never mind that no one could adhere to notions of Chinese tradition in such circumstances.
In Eat Drink Man Woman, Lee ties everything together with food. Food is a focal point of familial understanding, cultural bonding and love, and it’s intriguing to see the food in these films contrasted with that of Crazy Rich Asians, which revels in its culinary excess (except for the simplest pleasures: dumplings). Eat Drink Man Woman’s food isn’t about excess in the same way, but Master Chef Chu (Lung, returning), who spends hours every Sunday making a gigantic family dinner for his three adult daughters who still live at home-strict Christian Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang), sexually liberated real estate mogul Jia-Chien (Chien-lien Wu) and youngest, most frivolous Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang)-makes such meals as a means to keep connected to his increasingly distant children. A seven-minute opening sequence details the lengths to which Mr. Chu will go to make an astonishing meal (chicken, prawns, dumplings, etc.) in order to maintain a nuclear structure after the death of his wife. Still, the difference in personalities and approaches to life between his daughters becomes more glaring over the course of the film: Jia-Chien does not go off to get married and instead inherits the art of cooking, not unlike the way a son would; Jia-Ning becomes pregnant by her boyfriend and goes to live with him; and a man aggressively courts Jia-Jen, who, after being abstinent for nine years, marries him, perhaps in the hopes of converting him to Christianity. Additionally, throughout the film, Lee notes that Mr. Chu’s taste buds were not once they were, his extravagant dinners sometimes tasting off or missing the mark. He’s losing the skill that helped him succeed professionally. Conversely, his daughters’, particularly Jia-Chien’s, tastes become more highly developed and astute, pushing Mr. Chu to be more experimental with his recipes. When Mr. Chu does get his taste back, it’s accompanied by the announcement that he’s to marry again, this time to a significantly younger family friend, an indication of an older generation and a younger generation possibly finding peace together.
The three “Father Knows Best” films share bitter sweetness in their endings, portraying neither an obsequious devotion to tradition—with an older male character clinging desperately to old ways despite a cultural landscape (western or eastern) asserting no utility for them—nor a doggedly optimistic future either. Beneath the surface of these films is a very empathetic desire to not be alienated by your own people and family. Eleanor tells Rachel, “I chose to raise a family. For me, it was a privilege. But for you, you may think it’s old fashioned.” Despite being ousted by Eleanor, Rachel has a clear-eyed understanding of what her potential mother-in-law means by that, and Nick knows what he would be giving up. For a little bit, the question hangs in the air: Does mother really know best? No, but maybe neither do the young people. The subversive brilliance of Ang Lee’s films is the impressive compromises he presents, uniformly happy though they are not, pushing little by little forward into the future.