Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Eat Drink Man Woman
Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang
Sihung Lung, Kuei-Mei-Yang, Chien-Lien Wu, Yu-Wen Wang, Winston Chao, Chao-Jung Chen
No rating (mature themes)
Year of Release: 1994
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Eat Drink Man Woman explores the relationship between the retired Taiwanese consummate master chef, Tao Chu, and his three beautiful, very different adult daughters who still live at home when the movie begins. Living a quiet life of mostly simple pleasures, he spends much of his time lonely at home or cooking obsessively for the family's weekly ceremonial, multi-course Sunday dinners and doing his daughters' laundry while they are at work.
Food is as much a backdrop as a recurring symbol in this film. Mr. Chu's failing taste buds parallel his loss of zest for life. He is considered a great man in Taipei's culinary circles, but not at home, where his relationships with his children are deteriorating. It appears as if Tao Chu directs all of still available passions and grand statements into his cooking, so that he may operate on the cool and resilient level that works best in dealing with his daughters. But his flavorful food delights are also an expression of his love for his family.
Since Chu's wife died 16 years ago, he raised his children alone. Now his daughters feel obligated to look after him although they have different ideas about what they want to do with their lives. Their family life consists of the Sunday dinners, where - despite the scrumptious fine food - tensions run so high that the participants sometimes barely eat. Lately these gatherings mostly serve the purpose to make important announcements, which push the four farther apart. They don't have much in common and therefore don't have much else to say to each other.
Jia-Jen, the oldest daughter, a schoolteacher in her late twenties, feels especially responsible for the family and her father. She acts like a mother to her sisters and makes many sacrifices for the family. Jia-Jen teaches a rowdy roomful of horny adolescent boys while she is still nursing wounds from a romance that evaporated long ago. She is cynical about love in general. She uses her Christian faith to cope with her disappointments and gain strength to carry on. Nonetheless, the young woman slowly starts to open up when she meets the new gym teacher and volleyball coach in her school. This helps her to eventually to lay down the burdens that she had put on her own shoulders.
Jia-Chien, the middle daughter, is a respectable, career driven corporate airline executive, who has no time for her family and wants to escape from it as soon as possible. She begins a scrumptiously close working partnership with a colleague. Her relationship to her father is the most difficult one among the sisters. As a child, she would have preferred to practice the culinary arts that her dad so magically practiced by becoming a cook herself. But she was not allowed to become one, even though she proved to have quite some talent. Chu wanted his daughter to lead a better life than him, and therefore wanted her get a university education. Yet this somewhat destroyed their relationship.
Jia-Ning, the youngest of the three, is a twenty-year-old innocent romantic who goes to college and comes up with tuition money by working at a Wendy's fast food joint. She wants to get along with everyone, until she loses a friendship with a fickle coworker because she falls for her friend's boyfriend.
Tao Chu himself mostly notices his daughters' romantic, professional, and emotional developments by observing how they make less frequent and more restless appearances at their Sunday night dinners. As the film progresses, the daughters' new relationships blossom, their roles change, and the day they will move out of their father's home draws near.
Thus Chu will have to live on his own in the future. He starts to focus on other relationships. With his friend Jin-Rong's little daughter he builds a father-daughter relationship. He provides the girl with delicious multi-course school lunches while eating the less tasty food that Jin-Rong had prepared for her daughter. When Tao's nest is finally empty, he plays with the idea to take the loquacious Mrs. Liang as his wife.
I had seen 62-year-old Mimi for several months. Originally, she came to me for support with her worries around life transitions, such as moving to a bigger house in order to be able to take in her 94-year-old ailing mother. Still working fulltime, she felt overwhelmed by the new responsibilities that came with taking care of her mom. My client had a quasi-platonic, off-and-on romance with a slightly younger man, named Omar, for several years. He was interested in a closer relationship but she kept him at arms length because she didn't think that she was good enough for him.
During a recent session, Mimi mentioned that she saw Eat Drink Man Woman the previous night. She mentioned that she had repeatedly watched this film before because she loved it. Letting her know that I had not seen it, I asked my client to tell me more about her fascination with this movie. Mimi enjoyed how Tao Chu feeds his daughters. "That's what this movie is about for me", she said. Mimi specifically liked one scene. "In that scene", she continued, "the dad puts a dumpling on a spoon and feeds one of his daughters like a bird. Although both frown, which shows that they have problems, the father appears loving and nurturing to me."
What Mimi said made me wonder about a potential father-daughter issue that might have manifested in her relationships with men. And in fact, upon further inquiry, she told me under tears that she never received this kind of caring attention from her own dad. Her parents got divorced when she was very young. Since then my client had hardly seen her father any more. She never developed a close relationship to her stepfather because he was distant and very strict.
For our next session I suggested hypnotherapy with Film Re-entry . I explained to my client that I would guide her imagination to "enter" the movie in trance at the scene that had impacted her the most. Mimi liked this idea.
When we met again, I asked Mimi to close her eyes. I induced a light trance state and asked her first to find a safe, quiet and peaceful place as well as a wise, compassionate, and loving being, an "Inner Advisor" or "Inner Guide". This process helped her to relax deeper and get in touch with her inner wisdom. Her advisor appeared as a Tibetan guru. Now I encouraged Mimi to imagine that she steps into the movie screen at a scene of her choice and in the company and under the protection of her advisor.
Mimi "entered" into her favorite scene and remarked how sweet and touching it looks when Chu feeds his daughter. I encouraged her to ask her Inner Advisor why she feels drawn to this scene and how this attraction relates to her own life. My client's advisor told her that this scene highlights the love and nurturing from a dad that she always yearned for and never received. He continued explaining that this led to feelings of emptiness, and consequently to immature reactive and self-protective behavior with her romantic partners. For example, she pushed Omar away because he was not consistently available. Pushing him away made her feel strong.
With the help of her guide, Mimi started feeling compassion with the part of her that she called her "little girl that feels empty and needy". Subsequently my client saw that she also had a more mature adult self with real strength. This part was better able to tolerate vulnerability and to distinguish Omar's issues from hers. From the perspective of this adult self she saw that his lack of consistency does not indicate that she is not lovable.
After she came back to ordinary consciousness, I explained to Mimi that her Inner Advisor expresses the view of her own inner wise self. She was amazed how her new insights during the Film Re-entry process had led to a significant shift. Now my client was able to recognize the impact of her experiences with her dad and step-dad on her romantic relationships. She had not been able to trust her romantic partners for decades because she did not believe that she was worth being loved. Therefore she frequently sabotaged relationships by keeping her distance.
The Film Re-entry and our subsequent work helped Mimi develop an increased sense of self-worth. Soon her focus changed from her concern about being lovable to the question whether she wants to be in a relationship with Omar despite his lack of consistency. My client started wondering now what he had to offer to their relationship. This newfound clarity helped Mimi bring more directness into her communication with Omar. Her increased inner strength and self-worth also reduced her struggle with her life transitions.
Although Eat Drink Man Woman plays entirely in Taiwan, the themes of this film are universal. The difficulty of communicating across the generation gap is very common.
I rarely recommend foreign movies to clients because reading subtitles can interfere with their multi-sensory experience and therefore possibly reduce the emotional impact of the film. For Mimi this turned out not to be true.
In most cases, it does not matter whether I have seen the movies that affected my clients. Actually, I noticed that sometimes being unfamiliar with a film can be an advantage because I am forced to picture a scene through the clients' eyes, like their dreams. When they see themselves as experts in knowing a movie, greater rapport is possible as well as an increased likelihood for more independence in the therapeutic relationship.
In the Film Re-entry process the therapist tracks the inner path of progressive imagery to a place where the client is able to reconnect to the essential resources and the source needed to transform or release a previously unconscious pattern.
Guidelines for Work with for Clients using Film Re-entry
Ask clients to close their eyes and induce a light trance state.
Ask clients to
find a safe, quiet and peaceful place and "Inner Advisor",
in company of the advisor, "step into the movie screen" at an impactful movie scene of their choice,
explore the relevance of the scene for their own life with the help of the advisor.
Encourage clients to
reflect on insights when they return to ordinary consciousness,
contemplate how these insights might result in changed views of self and others and/or healthier behavior.
Birgit Wolz wrote and co- wrote the following continuing education online courses:
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy