Little nutrition: My review of Soul of a Banquet

D documentary

  • Directed by Wayne Wang

Note: This documentary will screen twice at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Details below. I am posting a full review now because this picture was not on the Festival’s list of films for which reviewers were asked to hold reviews.

In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life (and is still living it). But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food.

According to Wang’s interview subjects (primarily food author Ruth Reichl and Chez Panisse owner and founder Alice Waters) Chiang changed everything about Chinese food in America–and all of it for the better. Before she opened her restaurant, The Mandarin, in San Francisco in 1961, Chinese restaurants served what Reichl describes as “peasant food.” Then Chiang apparently came along, and we’ve been happily eating delicious Chinese gourmet food ever since.


But the film gives us little or nothing to support these claims. Was The Mandarin commercially successful? That never comes up. Did other Chinese restaurants start following her lead? Having seen the movie, I can’t tell you. But if they didn’t, how was she influential? We’re told off-handedly that The Mandarin no longer exists, but we’re never told when or why it closed.

In the interview-heavy first part of the film, Wang occasionally shows us the workings of a high-class Chinese restaurant kitchen. As I watched these, I assumed they were taken in The Mandarin. When the film casually mentioned that The Mandarin is no more, I felt cheated.

And what about that fascinating and exciting life? We’re given only a handful of enticing tidbits. We know she grew up in China, the youngest daughter of a large and wealthy family. An off-hand comment and some quick math in my head told me that she left China before 1942. She was married and living in Japan in 1961 when, as tourist, she almost accidentally acquired a San Francisco restaurant. In the film’s best sequence, she describes a heart-breaking 1972 visit to her family in China, when the Cultural Revolution was winding down but still powerful and deadly.

But these little facts just leave us wondering. Why did she leave China? How did she end up in Japan? (With what little I know about the Japanese occupation of China, I can imagine the worst.) What happened to her marriage when she started a restaurant thousands of miles from her husband and home? How did she replace her tourist visa with something more permanent?

What little information we get is concentrated into that first part of this three-part, 78-minute feature. The second section shows her supervising a staff of professional cooks preparing a lavish banquet for friends in her apartment. Very little is explained. We see mostly extreme close-ups of knives chopping food. The knives are handled with exceptional skill, but you can only watch so much of this sort of thing.

In the third and final part, we watch the banquet. As each dish is served, she explains what it is, we get close-ups of the scrumptious-looking delicacy, and we watch her guests (which include Reichl and Waters) joyfully examine and then eat the wonderful concoctions.

This endless parade of close ups, intended to produce a sensual experience that cinema can only create by suggestion, felt very much like pornography. And like so much pornography, it eventually became boring.

Now I have to come clean about something that may have affected my reaction to these scenes. I’m a vegetarian, and have been for a very long time. When I look at meat, no matter how well cooked and displayed, I don’t see it as food. I see it as a dead animal.

On the other hand, I love Chinese food. It’s one of my favorite cuisines. So I think that one prejudice probably cancelled out the other.

Whether you eat meat or not, I don’t think you’ll find much to love about Soul of a Banquet. It lacks the information needed to back up its argument. It lacks a sense of what can and cannot be recreated in a visual medium. And frankly, despite the wonderful and creative people in front of and behind the camera, it lacks soul.

Mill Valley Film Festival Soul of a Banquet screenings:

  • Rafael,  Sunday, October 5, 5:00. Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance.
  • Sequoia, Tuesday, October 7, 2:15.