The Christian Science Monitor
April 22, 1994
To a remarkable extent, today¹s Asian American filmmakers are conveying their messages through movies and videos that focus on food. Recent months have brought "The Wedding Banquet" and "Combination Platter," which center on culinary affairs right from their titles. "The Joy Luck Club" also had a healthy interest in eating.
But no recent production has gotten more mileage out of food than "Anatomy of a Springroll," an engaging look at Vietnamese culture as experience and remembered by Paul Kwan, a Chinese man who grew up in Vietnam and now lives in San Francisco, where he wrote and directed the video with partner Arnold Iger, a Brooklyn native. At once an informative documentary and a highly personal voyage into Kwan¹s personal and cultural past, it¹s worth a look by anyone who speaks the international language of cuisine. (It airs nationally on most PBS stations Sunday night.)
"Anatomy of a Springroll" announces its main themes in Kwan¹s opening narration: the way modern life often separates people from the places and cultures they were born into, and the way our most common pleasures can help us maintain vital connections with roots we might otherwise lose. "Food is everyone¹s first language," he concludesand if any viewer is prone to disagree, the screen comes alive with culinary images that make a most persuasive argument.
From here on, "Anatomy of a Springroll" remains fascinated with the food of Kwan¹s youthespecially the dishes cooked by his mother, and especially the springrolls they both adore. It refuses to fall into the predictable patterns of a conventional documentary, however. On the soundtrack, Kwan¹s narration includes straightforward descriptions and recollections along with stories, fables, and poetic evocations of impressions and events for the past. The images are equally eclectic, moving from colorful animation and expressionistic slow-motion shots to a cinema-verite account of Kwan¹s return to the Saigon neighborhood where his family used to live. Steering between viewer-friendly entertainment and avant-garde experimentation, the result is often as surprising as it is enticing.
For all its charm, "Anatomy of a Springroll" could have used a little fine-tuning. One wishes for more information about some subjects introduced but not explored by the video, such as Kwan¹s father, a Chinese patriarch with no fewer than 24 children. Then too, some of Kwan¹s observations are closer to clichés than revelations, as when he defines the concept of home as "something we can all understanda place in your heart."
At its best, though, "Anatomy of a Springroll" is a sprightly and touching excursion into the best kind of multiculturalism energized by the enthusiasm of its directors and the talents of many contributors.