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by Jay Seaver

"Sweet, sour, Asian, American."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: General Tso's Chicken is one of the most popular take-out dishes in America, a staple at nearly every Chinese restaurant in the country - and almost entirely unknown in China itself. I'm not certain that figuring out where this ubiquitous dish came from was Ian Cheney's true motivation for making this documentary, but it serves as an interesting and frequently amusing way to tell the story of Chinese immigration to the United States.

Cheney starts his search in Shanghai, showing people photographs of General Tso's Chicken and getting no response. It does lead them to Hunan Province, where he learns that Tso Tsung-t'ang was a local hero, never lost a battle, and was especially well-known for putting down the Taiping rebellion - and probably did not invent any chicken dishes. That means the origin of the dish is most likely to be found in the United States, where Cheney finds a history that involves much more than the sudden popularity of an item on a restaurant menu.

Though the dish first appeared in the 1970s, the story goes back to the 1880s and crisscrosses the United States from San Francisco to New York and back to Los Angeles, with a particularly noteworthy stop in Springfield, Missouri. Cheney finds interesting people to interview about most subjects all over the place, whether people who were present at the events in question or who had the knowledge of them handed down. The stories add up to a history of institutionalized racism and xenophobia, determined assimilation, and culinary plagiarism. Each time Cheney talks with someone, it seems, the conversation never strays from the matter at hand but always winds up pointing in a new direction, so that he and editor Frederick Shanahan can tell the story that encompasses a broad range of subjects without feeling as though they've gotten sidetracked.

Of course, "sidetracked" is a relative term. You can look Tso Tsung-t'ang up and learn about the recipe without racking up a bunch of frequent flyer miles, but it's a good way to frame other bits of history: The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for instance, one of the most discriminatory measures ever put into law and renewed for decades, winds up shaping the narrative quite a great deal, giving Chinese immigrants both a need to band together but also adapt and present themselves as non-threatening in their new home. As the film goes on, broader questions emerge without clear answers: What is authenticity where one's heritage is concerned, for example - it's easy to dismiss these sorts of "Chinese" dishes designed to appeal to the American palate, but after a certain point, is there not legitimacy to this new Chinese-American culture? What would General Tso think of this, being that he spent his life opposing foreign influence in China?

For all that there are interesting questions to be asked, though, Cheney seldom lets the movie become heavy. Whimsical animated transitions bring the movie from one topic to another, and there are eccentrics sprinkled among the more serious interviewees, like the guy who has a serious collection of Chinese take-out menus, or the Chinese restaurant in New Orleans that offers such dishes as "szechuan alligator". The filmmaker isn't nearly as visible here as in his previous film The City Dark, but we see him (or at least the dashboard of his car) just enough to get the feel of this coming from one person's curiosity rather than it being an impersonal project. There's an amusing feeling to scenes that could have played out as indignant or disdainful, like there's something funny to the way certain pieces don't quite add up.

The movie adds up, though - if all you've ever done is eaten the chicken, you'll learn about immigration, community, cuisine, and Qing Dynasty history. Not bad for a quick documentary about something that seems amusingly trivial enough that most people wouldn't give it a second thought.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=26724&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/04/14 16:05:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Docs Festival For more in the 2014 AFI Docs Festival series, click here.

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USA
  02-Jan-2015

UK
  N/A

Australia
  02-Jan-2015


Directed by
  Ian Cheney

Written by
  Ian Cheney

Cast
  (documentary)



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