Emma’s (Sharon Omi) anf Elliot (Teddy Chen) in "Eat With Me" screened at The Los Angeles Film Festival's LA Muse series.
By Helen Ly
Like all cultures, food is a way we connect with one another. We catch up with friends over lunch, meet potential dates for coffee, and have lavish dinners for family reunions, and this shapes an instinctive understanding of the role food plays in our lives.
Chinese culture has another nuance. Elders will ask "Have you eaten?" as an informal greeting interchangeable with "How are you?" It comes from a cultural memory of great famine. Food was once so scarce that the two phrases, so often said together, became an affectionate way of greeting friends, not an invitation for a meal.
So when you hear “Eat With Me” is the story of a chef with a struggling restaurant whose life is further complicated when his mom moves in after years of tension over his homosexuality, but yet bond over food, it’s easy to expect a formulaic storyline to be a light meal. Those who see the film will be pleasantly surprised.
It opens with a close-up of Emma’s (Sharon Omi) blank face staring back at us. She barely moves, but there is emotional complexity, a lost introspection and boredom, searching for something beyond the character's own self-understanding. The contemplative moment is interrupted by the husband, Ray (Ken Narasaki) jolting out of bed to rush into the bathroom to cut off his wedding ring. It is a scene that is hilarious, baffling, unusual, and pushes Emma to move.
We meet Elliot (Teddy Chen) at his Chinese dive when his mother comes to ask for refuge. His staff rushes to meet her since it’s no secret they have a bad relationship. "I don't see horns or a tail" says Jenny (Jamila Alina).
Elliot and Emma's relationship unfolds softly. Unlike other films about tense family dynamics, “Eat With Me” isn’t a cathartic resolution of family confrontation. Director David Au guides a subtle realism. It’s rare to have one heated discussion and all the complex feelings from the past disappear. Life is is more of a progression, and here its seen through outside relationships. Elliot and Emma spend time apart, even though they live under the same roof, and she has no clue what is happening in her son’s life.
It isn't until two-thirds into the film, Elliot shares with Emma his struggle with the restaurant nearing foreclosure.
Like the opening scene, what is processing through Emma is so buried beneath the surface that the reasoning behind her actions left for us to read, but it is through the relationships outside her family that she finds reflective communication.
Emma develops a wonderful friendship with the vivacious neighbor Maureen, played by Nicole Sullivan. As their friendship grows, Emma reveals a detail about the past revealing insight to her marriage with Ray.
In another scene George Takei provides a cameo that is hilarious, as Emma has no clue who he is, but he talks her through her process of accepting Elliot as gay.
Food’s role in “Eat with Me” is the possibility of reunion and resolution for what we starve for, which brings us to the need for carefully crafted relationships. It’s not just about a mother and son sharing a table, it invites everyone to come eat with them.