Cineaste: DVD Review
BY BRANDON WEE
Imagine this scenario. In an impromptu gathering, a dozen ethnic Chinese living outside China try to guess where each of the others comes from without asking directly. What would they learn from the languages spoken by members of the group? Some of those present will surely be speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, but what clues would this provide? Chinese-accented English would also be grist for the guessing mill. Of course, the resident monoglots would be the easiest to identify. But language and appearance are largely unreliable in assessing origin. Or so Chinese Restaurants , an ambitious documentary series detailing the dynamics of ethnicity, would have it.
Canadian director Cheuk Kwan’s omnibus is the result of his travels to fifteen locations in thirteen countries. Fashioned from fifteen episodes into five thematic features, each Chinese Restaurants disc contains three episodes. Happily, Chinese Restaurants has already been acclaimed at international film festivals. Screenings at both mainstream festivals ( Amsterdam , Hawaii , Hong Kong, Pusan , Singapore , Vancouver ) and niche festivals dedicated to Asian programming ( Barcelona , Chicago , San Diego , San Francisco , New York ) have been greeted with warmth and approval. Since only a few of the films were shown at any one of these events, however, the recently released DVD box set serves the purpose of making the totality of the films available.
In each of his fifteen locations, Kwan uses a Chinese restaurant or two as a portal through which to enter into the lives of Sino hyphenates. He also seeks to investigate the local history of Chinese migration over generations, the collective findings of which demonstrate just how layered ethnic Chinese identity is and how little it has to do with Chinese stereotypes. Kwan’s anthropological spin mitigates the cliché of identity politics and reveals a world of variety through an Asian American-Canadian sensibility.
The restaurant is not a strict motif, for the business of gastronomy is not Kwan’s agenda. It is rather an occasion for probing a variety of socio-economic circumstances. For every reputable establishment profiled, there is a careworn mid-sized enterprise caught in the flickering headlights of economic insecurity—a predicament exemplified in the Istanbul episode. There is also an interesting sleepy ‘Chinese Café’–something of a cross between an American diner and a Hong Kong ‘Tea Restaurant’– in the Outlook, Canada episode. The Havana episode hones in on a benevolent association that takes care of Barrio Chino’s thinning elderly community while also running a utilitarian restaurant on the side, an interior Kwan describes as “a time warp… frozen in another era, Shanghai perhaps, in the 50’s.”
For his locales, Kwan has cast his geographical net far beyond East Asia . The reason is self-evident: displacement cannot be explored inside China . He did not visit the Peranakans–also called the ‘Straits Chinese’–peculiar to Singapore and other former British colonial holdings in Southeast Asia, an ethnicity dually influenced by Chinese and Malay cultures. Chinese living in Japan , were also eliminated because he felt that they were too assimilated. Other regions did not appeal to him. Perhaps for this reason, Kwan’s exploration of the Chinese diaspora was not well received in Hong Kong, Mainland China , and Taiwan , which may justify his decision in retrospect, although an episode about the Peranakans would have been very interesting.
Certainly, Chinese Restaurants does not presume that the struggles of Chinese, migrant or otherwise, can be located only in Chinese restaurants; struggles across all communities exist regardless of ethnicity or vocation. Kwan’s rationale here is that since the Chinese restaurant is a relatively iconic institution, it accordingly opens a window on Chinese settlement patterns. All the same, there’s also an underlying tone of romanticism in this exposition. Because the series was originally conceived for television, Kwan was aware that engaging stories mandating conflict and resolution had to anchor the films, which in turn meant that the lives he chose to showcase had to offer something suitably dramatic; better yet, extraordinary.
Kwan’s characters are intriguing. Among them, devastating societal variances are discernible, sometimes within the same episode. Observe the Cape Town widow and apartheid survivor declare that she had always thought of her family as sojourners in their native land. Listen to the Istanbul widow recall how her late husband, a former Chinese governor, had fled the Communist insurgency in 1949 by trekking to Pakistan with his family in tow, and how, when Pakistan embraced Communist China, resolved to make the treacherous journey over ice and sand to Turkey, which they finally called home. Or study the body language of the Tromsø restaurateur, chain smoking as he quips about his mutinous youth. Kwan instantly recognizes and is amused by his John Woo-style machismo.
The films serve three bite-sized acts in each eighty minutes. The episodes customarily open with an introduction to location and characters, followed by a historical overview of local Chinese migration presented via montages of archival stills and motions. Kwan’s desire is to tell an engaging story in each locale. His interviews are digestible, and Kwan’s continuous presence in front of the camera, coupled with his unflappable narration, ensures that the conversation will move along. There is a great deal of pleasant scenery and, of course, the obligatory kitchen scenes, highly appropriate considering the restaurant motif.
The DVD extras include a bonus soundtrack CD dubbed “Musical Landscapes”, a medley of instrumental themes inspired by the locations. Among these is Ilusión China: Fantasia Chinesca , performed by Fermin Huey-Ley. It is a syncretic mixture of Chinese influenced music with Spanish lyrics. Huey-Ley is the Havana episode’s charming sexagenarian, a famed dancer in his youth, but who now croons poignantly of being torn between Canton and Cuba . The set also includes a forty-page booklet containing eight short essays, song lyrics, and track listings. One of the essays featured is excerpted from Kwan’s diary entry in Buenos Aires , written during the end of his journey, in which he fantasizes about the tango and, fittingly, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together. Indeed, Kwan used one of Wong’s locations for the episode’s flirtatious closing shot.
The set’s software is bilingual: in addition to the original English, French narration and subtitles are also available. Each film also features two commentary tracks in English: in “The Diaspora,” Kwan and Ted Goossen, professor of humanities at Toronto ‘s York University discuss the films. In “The Journey”, Kwan chats with his cinematographer, Kwoi Gin. The former track may be somewhat scholastic in tone but is never overbearingly academic. Although some overlap is present in these commentaries, the latter presents a more intimate exchange between the two filmmakers who reminisce about their four-year adventure.
As previous reviewers have remarked, Chinese Restaurants is neither a cooking show nor a travelogue. It’s also not History Channel material. Kwan says that it is a “comprehensive mixture of all those elements.” Although cooking isn’t primary in the film, food in fact furnishes a persuasive metaphor for the reality of cross-cultural integration. In each locality, no claims of ‘authentic’ Chinese cuisine can be made by anyone; diversity and difference are the major themes here. Both cultural differences and market pressures account for the prevalence of fusion cuisine in the diaspora. When one flinty Calcutta proprietor says that he would be out of business if he catered only to Chinese tongues, he seems to speak for the other businesspeople in the series.
Kwan has acknowledged that this project, self-funded and involving a three-man crew, was a product of his mid-life crisis. As he wanders around the world, he deals with his crisis through curiosity, asking the primary questions that inform Chinese Restaurants : “Who are you?,” “Where is home?,” and “What of the future?” His onscreen equanimity belies a constant hunger for reassurance from his interviewees that he is not alone. Kwan, itinerant for most of his life, may well be seeking the comfort of self-knowledge that only those like him can offer.
Brandon Wee is a writer based in Toronto. This review first appeared in the online version of Cineaste – America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema, Fall 2006.