A young, attractive-looking couple in mid-1940s China build a loving relationship, sharing a common love that bonds them through bad times, only to be separated by political turmoil. Then, a chance meeting decades later rekindles the spark of love.
Sound familiar? It’s a back-story that certainly happens in JOYFUL REUNION, our Closing Night attraction here at the Film Festival, yet the story I was thinking of was contained within another film of recent vintage — director Wei Te-sheng’s wildly popular 2008 CAPE NO. 7. Indeed, the theme of lost love that perseveres across decades and generations due to wartime upheaval was utilized to great effect in Wei’s all-time Taiwanese box office champ. While some of his contemporaries including Tom Lin (WINDS OF SEPTEMBER, Festival 2009), Doze Niu Chen-Zer (MONGA), and Arvin Chen (AU REVOIR TAIPEI, Festival 2010) have focused on decidedly in-the-moment dramas and rom-coms, replicating — or at least expanding on — the success of CAPE NO. 7 seems to be a preoccupation of aficionados of Taiwanese cinema, if not of the filmmakers themselves. It’s fitting, then, that renowned producer Hsu Li Kong and a team of screenwriters locate another revered inspiration for JOYFUL REUNION in Ang Lee’s 1994 EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, also produced by producer Hsu. Positioned as the “official” follow-up to director Lee’s last of his “Father Knows Best” trilogy, JOYFUL REUNION is in fact its own story, urbane and bittersweet as it skips back and forth from idyllic Hangzhou on the mainland to chaotic Taipei. And oh yes…much like EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, JOYFUL REUNION is a foodie movie at its core.
Noted Hong Kong character actor Kenneth Tsang is the longtime proprietor of a well-known vegetarian restaurant in Hangzhou. Eldest daughter Wa’er (Huo Siyan) is the manager of a luxurious health resort nearby, while kid sister Xiao Lan leads a decidedly carefree life. Into this picture drops Apple (Gua Ah Leh, who appeared as Madame Liang in EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN), the outwardly obnoxious and equally free-spirited auntie of Zhang Quan (Lan Zheng-Long), Wa’er’s nerdy boyfriend, a computer games designer from Taipei who spends too much of his time in the virtual world. From the moment she arrives with nephew in town, Apple throws Wa’er and Quan’s lives out of whack, freeloading on Wa’er’s largesse and the offerings of the health resort; and turning her nose up at the high-brow cuisine at the vegetarian restaurant. That isn’t all. Just as Wa’er arrives at a crossroads in her relationship with Quan, her father has an announcement for his daughters — he is closing the restaurant due to an advancing medical condition. At a dinner meeting with Wa’er, Quan and their respective families reveals deeply-hidden secrets, and maybe an opportunity for love to intertwine and bond once again…
In comparing the impact of director Lee’s earlier film to his follow-up, director Tsao Jui-Yuan observed, “If EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN is said to be a film that uses savory, affection and sexual desires to explore man and woman’s family relationship and social issues then, JOYFUL REUNION will instead be using the simplicity, neutrality and purity of food to portray a long-awaited love…of course, Ang Lee did a great job. I don’t expect myself to surpass his result, but I just hope both films will shine equally in their respective era.” Bravo to that. By resisting the urge to simply follow the seeming pack mentality of his younger contemporaries, director Tsao’s effort exudes its own timelessness and charm. JOYFUL REUNION, in its own eloquent way, cuts across — and speaks to — multiple generations.
Synopsis written by: Abraham Ferrer