If it still holds true that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, Ian Cheney’s highly entertaining and unexpectedly weighty “The Search for General Tso” would suggest it is also the way to soften a nation’s racial prejudices.
Based in part on the investigative work of Jennifer 8. Lee, who wrote “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” and originally intended to call the book “The March of General Tso” before (partially) getting her wish as a producer here, the film has an ideal director in Ian Cheney, who previously got well under the husk of the genetically modified organism industry as the star and writer of 2007’s “King Corn.”
In “General Tso,” he finds another Trojan horse in the sweet, spicy, sticky and fried chicken dish that’s become a staple in Chinese restaurants across America. Yet in a journey that takes him from Tucumcari, New Mexico to Taipei, Cheney reveals how the proliferation of Chinese food in America and beyond has provided opportunity for the stream of immigrants who first began descending upon the States during the Gold Rush of 1849, yet only found disdain and contempt until they began cooking the cuisine of their homeland, albeit with recipes made more palatable to American tastes.
“The Search for General Tso” takes its cues from those enterprising chefs, adding a sugary patina to a thorough recounting of racial subjugation so virulent it was passed into law with the five-decade-long Chinese Exclusion Act. Cleverly composed animation by Sharon Shattuck adds some pizzazz to the history of Chinese-American culture, as recounted in a mix of man on the street interviews with scholars such as Brown University professor Robert G. Lee and the unrelated Chinese Historical Society of America executive director Sue Lee.
Under the guise of learning the origins of the chicken dish and the famed Qing dynasty statesman it takes its name from, Cheney and crew find considerably more, learning the great disconnect between China and its representation abroad as a fifth generation descendant of Tso puzzles over a fortune cookie, wondering if it’s even edible. They also travel from one strip mall to another in the States, taking in different variations on General Tso’s chicken in different regions, as well as other dishes that were born out of acclimation rather than authenticity. The film’s real discovery is Harley Spiller, a menu collector who can actually pinpoint the introduction of chop suey to American palates in 1916 after some digging into his considerable files in a cramped apartment in New York.
Given China’s growing global clout and the air of mystery that still surrounds the country for most Americans, “The Search for General Tso” feels especially prescient in demystifying the East while reflecting the complexities of the ongoing cultural exchange in an area as rudimentary as food. Yet Cheney’s vivacious, fast-paced primer would be welcome at any time as finely-wrought fun, raising real questions about appropriation and the lengths the Chinese-American community have gone to in order to fit in as it satisfies the foodies and film buffs drawn in by its initial premise. Not only has Cheney made something that tantalizes the tastebuds, but it’s good for you too.
“The Search for General Tso” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play the Tribeca Film Festival twice more on April 21st at 3 pm and April 24th at 9 pm at the Bow Tie Cinemas Chelsea.