Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ten Thumbs Up! The Search For General Tso, the movie

As I have mentioned in the past, despite all my musings about food I have written a grand total of one restaurant review about a specific restaurant, and that was back in 1977.  So I’m now matching that number for movie reviews in this short review of the new film The Search For General Tso, which opened last month at the TriBeCa film festival and will be making its way around the independent film festival circuit.  My feelings about this movie are unrelated to the fact that I’m one of the interviewees–it’s a fantastic movie even (or perhaps especially) without me.  

For my California friends, I do need to make this prefatory remark.  General Tso’s Chicken is a sweet, spicy, savory dish made with deep fried chicken nuggets.  It is seldom seen in California.  Indeed Mrs. Chandavkl and her cousin who saw the movie with me at TriBeCa had never eaten the dish before, until we found Chinese Fast Wok Restaurant around the corner from the screening in Chelsea after we watched the movie.  Few, if any of my family and friends in California have ever had the dish, as it seems to have been pre-empted out here by the sweeter orange chicken dish, popularized by Panda Express.  But if you move east from California, General Tso’s Chicken is one of the most ubiquitous dishes found in Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

Ostensibly, The Search For General Tso deals with the mystery of the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, a standard Chinese restaurant dish in much of the United States, and the ultimate success in ascertaining where the dish came from creates a highly satisfactory conclusion to the movie.  Yes, in a progression from New York to China and back, even involving one of the descendants of General Tso, the creator of the dish is found and interviewed, as is the restauranteur who took the dish and ran with it, creating perhaps the signature dish of the secondary, non-Cantonese wave of Americanized Chinese food. 

But the movie is much more than that.  It is the story of the struggle of Chinese Americans against racial hatred and enmity to ultimately find a place in America.  Of immigration laws which prevented Chinese (singled out over every other nationality) from migrating to the United States for decades.  Of the Cantonese roots of the Chinese American community and Chinese food in America which only diversified to include Chinese of other regional origins after the repeal of Chinese Exclusion.  A story of how Chinese restaurants and Chinese food developed in the United States, and how the Chinese evolved from mass targets of scorn to a measure of acceptance.  Ask David Leong, Springfield, MO’s creator of the regional favorite Springfield cashew chicken, how long it took to gain that acceptance, as when opening his first restaurant in the 1960s his restaurant was bombed before it even opened.  (Not to mention local bankers who refused to loan him the money to start his restaurant.)   Through interviews with academics, writers, chefs, restauranteurs, food critics and more, Ian Cheney concludes the search for General Tso, in a tale that tells a much larger story.

In bringing author Jennifer 8 Lee’s search for General Tso to the movie screen, filmmaker Ian Cheney has done so much more.  As I told him at the post-screening Q&A in front of the sold out audience at the Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea, “As a Chinese American, I want to thank you for telling our story.” 

1 comment:

  1. I'm so happy that the movie turned out well: I can't wait to see it.

    Dave Feldman