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Los Angeles Times April 25, 1994
Jon Matsumoto

Springroll Recalls Vietnam via Food

No one can understand the culture of a country without experiencing its food. Thatıs the premise of "Anatomy of a Springroll," a most unusual and appealingly quirky documentary about a 37 year-old Vietnamese manıs reflections on his youth and culture.

An ethnic Chinese, Paul Kwan fled war-torn Vietnam at 18. He eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he became an artist.

But Kwanıs most profound recollections of Saigon arenıt of hardship and strife. Instead, he rapturously recalls the culinary delights that helped define his home city‹sweet rice with coconut shreds, fresh chili, spicy rice noodle soup with fish and shrimp paste, pate sandwichesŠand, most of all, springrolls.

"The Vietnamese have been at war for 1,000 years‹invaded by the Chinese, colonized by the French, and bombed by the Americans," says Kwan, who serves as the filmıs narrator. "And what have they produced? Fabulous foodŠAmericans have 200 years of freedom and high technology and what have they produced? The Big Mac!"

For Kwan, food is the most accurate and enjoyable means of connecting with his ethnic roots. When we see his septuagenarian mother intensely preparing a Vietnamese feast in her California kitchen, itıs not work but a form of cultural and artistic expression. After Kwan tries his hand at making springrolls, she checks each one to make sure theyıve been rolled correctly. "Too loose," she says of one springroll that didnıt make the grade.

The one-hour documentary reaches a revealing climax when Kwan returns to Saigon for the first time. Many of the neighborhood landmarks for his childhood‹the soy sauce factory, the coffee roasting business and the opium den‹are long gone. But more significantly, the sounds of the sizzling woks and the sights of bustling marketplaces remain intact. The many mouthwatering shots of Vietnamese cuisine in this film are sure to stir those more adventurous palates.

Directed and written by Kwan and longtime creative partner Arnold Iger, "Anatomy of a Springroll" tells its story in a variety of imaginative ways. A Vietnamese folk tale about a cook who is enslaved by a voracious emperor is told through traditional puppets; a dream sequence is illustrated via animation, and a hilarious segment imagining the possibilities should the Kwan springroll recipe be parlayed into a fast-food business is reminiscent if Laurie Andersonıs multimedia work.