Friday, December 19, 2008

Cinema Stir-Fry: A Symphony of Cooking Utensils

This is the second post in a series I've decided to call "Cinema Stir-Fry" (Celeste Heiter's wonderul blog has bragging rights to "Chopstick Cinema"), the first being about a move called Xian Doujiang.

A Symphony of Cooking Utensils (that's a literal translation, which hopefully sounds less cumbersome in Chinese) was made in 1983 by Teng Wenji, but somewhat prophetically points to the economic reforms of the 1990's. The protagonist, Niu Hong (played by Sun Chun) is a young cooking school graduate who is made manager of the dysfunctional Chun Zheng Restaurant. The restaurant is rundown and simply drifting (it's a State Owned Enterprise) and the idealistic Niu takes it upon himeslf to shape it up. He performs miracles with apparent ease, getting bank loans for remodeling, upgrading the menu and generally gussying up the place and the employees' attitudes. Soon the place is turning a handsome profit, which he re-invests in his employees as well as catering and other related activities. Along the way he deals with petty frictions between employees, truculent customers, and ultimately Communist Party apparatchiks, who are appalled by his personal initiative and insubordination (which includes sending a representative to Party meetings he considers useless instead of attending himself). Most of all, they are miffed at his failure to turn over all his profits to the Party, and Niu's refusal to bend on the issue gets him fired.

Intertwined with the restaurant reform saga are several love interests, including a couple of triangles in which Niu is the odd man out. One of these triangles includes Liu Junying (played by Yin Tingru), who is supporting herself through art school by working at the restaurant. Niu becomes infatuated with her, but finds out she is engaged to a famous young writer (who plays a key role in saving Niu's bacon by the end of the movie).

The movie has a thin but well paced plot, with excellent cinematography, and the enigma of Niu's capacity for mismanaging love even when it's thrown in his lap keeps it from being utterly banal. Although Niu's love life doesn't pan out (so to speak), the movie ends with Communist ideology and the free enterprise spirit walking off hand in hand.

Although a majority of the movie was filmed in the restaurant, there are disappointlngly few scenes of food and food being prepared, with the highlights here being a watermelon feast that Niu treats the employees to, and a scene of Niu cooking in the busy kitchen.

1 comment:

Gary Soup said...

I found an interview with Teng Wenji at Here's what he said about the movie: "My next film was SYMPHONY OF COOKING UTENSILS (1983), which many people find strange and amusing title, at least. It was based on a short novel, but I wrote the script. It was attacked by all the film magazines in China. There wasn't a single magazine or paper which didn't talk about it. The film is about a reformer who is always fails at love. I was accused of painting this reformist black, of putting him down. The critics said that reformists should be considered saints, or angels. But this guy, every time he has a love affair, falls flat on his face. Yin Tingru plays the female lead. The two stars fall in love, but they never "make it" together."