Characters and Culture: the Jewish family in Ang Lee’s ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’

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I love to listen to commentary tracks and interview features on DVDs. They feed my ongoing interest in film making. And every now and then I hear something that makes me astounded it has not been pounced on by the blogosphere and chewed to a tatter already.

Eat Drink Man Woman

That was my feeling when I heard this interview snippet intercut between Ang Lee and James Schamus, who co-wrote the script of Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)[1]:

Lee: [Schamus’ script] tried very hard to be a Chinese [family]…but it just doesn’t read like Chinese. I kept complaining until he was so frustrated he just write ’em like Jewish.

Schamus: And I made a global change in all the names in the computer as I was writing the script to just Jewish names, and just let it rip. You know, ‘cuz it’s about food, it’s about family, and that’s kinda Jewish…I just changed all the names from Jia-jen and Jia-chen and Jia-Ning to, you know, whatever. Silvia…

Lee: …and I say, yeah uh….Looks very Chinese. (Laughs) Great improvement. I was like…(hands to head in amazement.) Must be something that is universal among all of us.[2]

With the family dynamics of that movie fresh in my mind, some things that struck me were the sense of obligation and duty; turning worrying –  and kvetching about it – into a fine art; the use of guilt and expectation as lever to secure the behavior desired of a child; the paradigm of a daughter either staying home to care for a parent, or getting married, with other alternatives not really weighing into the mix (the daughters’ work lives are never central to the family focus).

Now, I’m not an expert on Jewish or Chinese cultures, and this post is not going to attempt to get into cultural issues per se. But I do have Chinese-American friends who have commented about Ang Lee’s family dynamics, “My family was just like that!”. This makes me wonder if we took a Woody Allen movie and stripped it of Jewish cultural context, then changed names, settings, and the externals so it signaled “Chinese” not “Jewish”, if we would then have another movie that, as Lee would say, “Looks very Chinese” (referring, of course, to the family and personal dynamics being portrayed). Conversely, could we take a Chinese script, change names to Moishe and Rachel, and have something that would play convincingly as a drama rooted in Jewish family dynamics?

Is Lee correct when he says the portability of behaviors is because there “must be something that is universal among all of us”?

That seems to be demonstrably the case with this particular movie, since that is exactly how they derived much if not all of the family dialog. And the principle is assumed to hold true in drama across the board. It is a truism that stories often tell tales of ‘universal’ appeal because we all share the same human condition.

It is less often noted that the cultural context of the story may not matter at all.

The most interesting question this raises for me is how permeable and, in the final analysis, irrelevant our cultural trappings may actually be. True, we are intertwined with such trappings, as they help us to create self-identity and form a sense of connection with family, community, larger culture and polity. But if we can change the names to those of another culture, and write, say, a family dinner argument as we would in that other culture, and then change the names back and still have it ring true through the original cultural lens: then, yes, it does seem that culture is not the completely definitive and unique thing we so often assume it to be.

What does that say about us and our relationship with culture? No answers here, just questions.

On the writing front, though, at the risk of stating the incredibly obvious, it seems possible, then, to portray that which is alien by going deeply into an analog that the artist knows the truth of. They say “write what you know.” And when you don’t know it, but want to write about it, how can you do it justice? I suppose Lee and Schamus have illustrated one way to go about it. Transpose something (situation, character, events) out of one setting and into another you are familiar with. Write from that perspective. Then transpose it back into the original setting/culture/guise. With some intelligent and culturally sensitive fine-tuning, you may just have nailed it.

How curious.

[1] EDMW was written by Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang.

[2] The quoted segment appears on the DVD feature track entitled “A feast for the eyes: Ang Lee in Taipei” within a larger conversation beginning at the 10:04 minute mark.


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