San Jose Mercury News
May 25, 1997
Film studies Asian ideas about food.
When Paul Kwan was a child sick with a sore throat, his mother headed for the kitchen. Rather than reach for the cough syrup, sheıd cook a special dish to "tame the heat."
"Chinese medicine operates on a belief that a healthy body is in balance," says Kwan, now a filmmaker. "When youıre too hot or too cold, you get sick. If you have too much fire in the body, you should eat things like sun-dried bok choy cooked with pork and Chinese dates."
"For my throat, she would make a red bean dessert with tapioca, coconut, and a lotus seed. Thatıs very important; lotus is considered a middle of the roadı ingredient, and very soothing."
Kwan, 45, and his partner, Arnold Iger, 48, explore the Eastern notion of food as medicine in their film "Pins and Noodles," airing this Friday as part of KQEDıs Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The series is presented in conjunction with the National Asian American Telecommunications Association.
Rituals of choosing, preparing and consuming savory dishes are such a strong reflection of Asian values, culture and family life that Kwan an d Iger are devoting a trilogy of films to the subject. In the first, "Anatomy of a Springroll," Kwan revisited the Vietnam of his childhood and learned that a crunchy appetizer can be stuffed with remembrance.
"Preparing food is an oral history," he says.
"Pins and Noodles" started out as a documentary about a couple using Chinese medicine to improve their chances of conception. "But they got cold feet," says Iger, deadpan. "About that time, Paul started to experience mysterious food allergies, and the film became his odyssey to find a cure."
Until then, Kwanıs favorite stage was the kitchen. He knew which shops offered the freshest fish, the best persimmons. Platters of glistening shrimp and sauced greens flowed from his galley,
Then he broke into a rash after eating his favorite dish of giant prawns. Heıd become allergic to seafood. Later, he had an unrelated stroke. He couldnıt eat what he loved. He couldnıt cook it either.
He tried various remedies: the "pins" of acupuncture, the comforts of a steaming bowl of noodles.
The journey took the filmmakers to the teaching hospital at Tai Chung Medical College in Taiwan, where traditional and Western healing methods are used side by side. "In traditional Chinese medicine, a doctor judges more than 20 different qualities in the pulse to tell whatıs wrong," Iger says. "Now they use sensitive instruments linked to a computer matrix; itıs moved into the 20th century technology.
Kwanıs feisty 75 year-old mother, who doled out crusty advice in "Springroll," makes a reappearance, grimacing hilariously when Kwan makes her drink a bitter herb tea for her "woman problems."
Another recurring character is a dancing dinosaur, a refugee from Kwan and Igerıs costumed performance art shows of the 1980s. An animated segment tracing the story of Marco di Linguini, distant cousin of Marco Polo, is typical of Kwan-Iger humor.
"He vows to find a way to preserve noodles for the long journey from China to Italy," says Iger. "He goes to the mountains to learn the secret contained in the fiery breath of the noodlesaurus.
"I grew up watching Rocky and Bullwinkle,ı" Iger adds. "The film reflects the way weıve been working all along in our theater work, a surreal mix of costumes, puppets, film and animation."
A final film in the series, titled "A Wok in Progress," will trace Kwanıs efforts to help his sister open her dream restaurant. A wok, Iger reflects, contains the recipe by which families function.