The Search for General Tso (2014)
Editor’s Notes: The Search for General Tso is currently out in limited release.
Food-documentarian Ian Cheney understands the classic documentary form of starting with a simple question, which through the journey of answering it, can reveal surprisingly complex answers. His documentary, The Search for General Tso, opens with a food photoshoot in a Chinese restaurant. The titular General Tso’s Chicken dish is lovingly laid out and lit under flattering lights. Cheney wishes to discovery where the dish came from, and how it came to be so ubiquitous. As well as this, the opening scene shows another key theme: the process of presentation as survival. Thich becomes a thematic idea underpinning what looks like a simple documentary the origin of the titular dish. This subtext is a pleasing surprise, as it allows Cheney to transcend the structure of travel documentary through it’s insightful content. As such, General Tso is an illuminating journey into the origin of Chinese food and its mutations as it spread internationally.
General Tso is an illuminating journey into the origin of Chinese food and its mutations as it spread internationally.
The documentarian style that General Tso uses is straightforward but pleasing. Cheney cuts between talking heads imparting facts, montages of food being prepared and footage of the crew journeying through America and China. There is no central character, just a series of people who are connected to the Chinese culture in various ways be they heads of cultural associations, Chinese menu collectors, restaurant managers and immigrants. The editing is smooth and well structured; pulling food, location and people together, creating the sensation of discovering a friendly cultural network across the world, all bonding over the ubiquitous nature of Chinese food and how Chinese people all each interpret their heritage in ways that are all equally valid. Though the crowd of smiling, engaged faces of all genders and ages, Cheney succeeds in conveying how food transcends barriers and comes alive as part of a cultural conversation with the constant reinvention of classic Chinese dishes when brought to another land.
… the real value that General Tso as a documentary holds, is how the viewer honestly learns something about a subject so always in view that they might never realize how interesting it really can be.
Chinese food is one of the most ubiquitous culinary cultures around us, and the real value that General Tso as a documentary holds, is how the viewer honestly learns something about a subject so always in view that they might never realize how interesting it really can be. As we near the end of the film, Cheney reminds us that reinterpreting the past is how we keep it alive, and the film’s measured tone never attacks or criticizes when it comes to discussing the racial tensions in America’s history, it instead explores the reasons for it, and how an enterprising culture found a way around it.
The final answer that Cheney discovers for General Tso’s Chicken is both touching and functional, acting as a good recapping of the film’s themes. Everything is connected, and we can refer back to that opening scene; Chinese food on an international level is just a photo. Manipulated, for the pleasure of the audience, and that isn’t a bad thing.
The Search for General Tso is simple, effective and illuminating. It won't amaze you, but it validates its own existence through the exploration of the questions within.