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Stefan Ulstein

The Iron Women of Chinese Cinema

Why do so many recent Chinese films feature strong women?

Made in Taiwan, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the top-grossing subtitled film ever, is the first Chinese drama to cross over into North American theaters and become a bona-fide mainstream hit, garnering ten Academy Award nominations and winning four (Best Foreign Film, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score). Perhaps not coincidentally, three of the four major characters in this genre-bending action-drama are women: strong characters who carry both the plot and the action.

Lee, who also directed The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility in the West, first made his mark in Taiwan with the wildly entertaining family comedy, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. In this masterful romp, Mr. Chu is a widowed chef whose three beautiful daughters are victims—and beneficiaries—of the rapid changes in Chinese culture. A generation earlier Mr. Chu would have married the girls off, probably at great cost. Now, one is a successful airline executive, another is a teacher, and the youngest a struggling waitress.

Mr. Chu is a gruff old duffer who loves his daughters even as he drives them crazy. When he falls in love with a younger woman, he is drawn to her partly becuase of his grandfatherly relationship with her little daughter, Shan-Shan. In one of the film's subplots, we see Chu, the great chef, trundling exotic lunches to the primary school for Shan-Shan, whose divorced mother is a wretched cook. Soon Shan-Shan is taking orders for the entire class, and Chu is happily (and secretly) feeding them.

What is remarkable about Eat, Drink, Man, Woman is Lee's deft parsing of subtle contradictions in Chinese culture. For centuries, China's girls and women have been undervalued. In the communist era, the one-child policy has encouraged infanticide and selective abortion of females, creating a staggering gender imbalance. Yet the role of women in China has always been more complex than that of passive victim, and the best recent Chinese films—Lee's ...

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