Bites: A Taste of Asian Cinema

1 – 31 March 2021

Bagri Foundation curates a selection of Asian film titles from the MUBI UK archive taking food as a key motif for storytelling and as a symbol across the narrative journey. Rural farming, restaurateurs, street food stall holders, home-made recipes passed down through generations – these themes are consistently explored through Asian cinema.  Local delicacies, agriculture and staple meals act as metaphors, or backdrops, for larger questions of grief, love, pride, friendship, memory, violence, environmental degradation and politics.

In selecting the films for Bites, the Bagri Foundation looked for key moments or settings throughout that captured an element of food or food production, referencing universal emotions and human interest. The stories presented, spanning from across the Asian continent, are sometimes simple on the surface, with underlying conflicts for which the viewer must search, whilst others are complex with intertwining storylines crossing time and place.

From a meal on a Turkish train that becomes a journey into the poetics of solidarity, to a night sketch from a food stall on a corner of Ho Chi Minh City, to a tiny sushi bar in Tokyo in search of perfection, with its nine feature and short films, Bites explores the inextricable relationship between human stories and food, where the nourishment of the body is indissoluble from the one of the soul.

In addition, the Bagri Foundation has gathered recipes inspired by the films for everyone to enjoy at home. Find the full summaries of each film and why we chose it below, alongside the recommended recipe for each.

Existing Mubi members can see the playlist via the link below, and those who are not yet members, can get a 30-day pass to watch them for free.

Selected Films

Sweet Bean

Dir Naomi Kawase, Japan, 2015

Synopsis: Grumpy Sentaro runs a small bakery that serves dorayaki, pastries filled with sweet red bean paste (“an”). When an old lady, Tokue, offers to help in the kitchen, he reluctantly accepts. She will soon prove to have magic in her hands. Thanks to her secret recipe, the little business flourishes. 

Our Take: This beautiful film is a touching story about companionship and loss. Unexpected friendships are formed at the time of cherry blossom in Japan in this unique story told with a heartfelt, gentle tone. The cinematography invites us to sit still with nature and enjoy the small blessings in life – a blossom in the wind, the warmth of a dorayaki pancake, someone to talk to – which feels apt for 2021.  

Our Daily Bread

Dir Mani Kaul, India, 1970

Synopsis: A woman walks for miles every day to get bread for her truck driver husband, and waits for him to drive past the village. While he spends time with his friends and his mistress, she is concerned about their dying relationship. One day she needs to help her sister, and is late for her husband.

Bagri’s take: The oldest film in our series, Our Daily Bread, is a heart-breaking glimpse into rural India and women’s precarious existence. A beautiful example of Indian New Wave cinema, the lingering shots, minimal dialogue and emphasis on the hands and face, lend a heightened sense of anxiety. The stunning cinematography paints a bleak picture of the patriarchy and echoes the aching loneliness of the main characters. 

Something Useful

Dir Pelin Esmer, Turkey, 2017

Synopsis: Leyla, a lawyer and poet, has decided to attend a school reunion after neglecting previous invitations. Canan, a young nursing student, dreams of becoming an actress. Following a meeting on a train, they unite for a journey that will offer new insight into the importance of charting one’s own path.

Our take: In this delicate portrait of human connection, a meal on a train starts a relationship of solidarity between two women. Differences in age, class, experiences, and personal desires blend into a depiction of sisterhood where art enlightens human paths in the face of life and death decisions. Something Useful is a journey into Turkish landscapes,  shared meals and conversations, poetry and interconnectedness.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Dir David Gelb, United States, 2011

Synopsis: An appetizing documentary in every sense, Jiro Dreams of Sushi follows 85-year-old master sushi chef Jiro Ono, paying lushly photographed homage to the process of preparing the artisan sushi that earned Ono’s esteemed Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant three Michelin stars.

Our take: Now a decade old, this documentary continues to resonates with those who watched as Jiro explains his passion for making sushi to a point of perfection. He shared advice about hard work, dedication and commitment, yet gives himself no airs nor graces, inviting everyone and anyone to enjoy his ‘simple and pure’ sushi (inside a Tokyo metro station!). It’s a thoughtful exploration of Jiro’s life, his son’s attempt to live up to his reputation and what it takes to be a ‘master’ in Japanese cuisine.

So Long, My Son

Dir Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 2019

Synopsis: Factory workers Liyun and Yaojun are a couple reeling from a devastating family tragedy during the tumultuous years between the 1980s and the 21st century. Constricted by the one-child national policy, their lives are gradually transformed under the impact of China’s changing identity.

 Our take: This family saga unfolds with such pace, and captivating acting, that you feel as if you’ve lived their lives yourself. A tragic start, followed by a confusing scene at a dinner table, So Long, My Son slowly reveals the truth of a life-changing event for all involved, shown through flashbacks – many involving celebrations and meals.  From the hangover of the Cultural Revolution to the capitalist boom, it captures the impact of government policy on family life and friendships.

River of Exploding Durians

Dir Edmund Yeo, Malaysia, 2014

Synopsis: In a Malaysian coastal town, a rare earth mining plant that is very polluting is being built. However, high-school student Ming only cares about his strolls on the beach with Mei Ann. Meanwhile, history teacher Ms. Lim has started an activist group to protest against the construction.

Our take: As part of the MUBI’s archive, we could not overlook Edmund Yeo’s first feature-length film. A poetic debut that brings the director back to his home country, Malaysia, intertwining the slow heat of an intimate and impossible love story, with the burning passion of resistance and activism that sets on fire memories, lives, and sudden piles of eaten durians. Food as livelihood, memory and metaphor are woven throughout Yeo’s interconnected stories.

Stay Awake, Be Ready

Dir Pham Thien An, Vietnam, 2019

Synopsis: On a street corner a mysterious conversation among three young men at a street stall. Meanwhile a traffic accident on a motorbike. The night brings together a sketch, a multicolour frame of reality​.

Our take: From one cinematic shot, the atmosphere of this short film skilfully captures a street corner in Ho Chi Minh City. The hustle and bustle ranges from a fire street performer to a food stall holder, whilst two restaurants continue to peddle their food to customers on plastic chairs. A meandering conversation about life is interrupted by an off-camera traffic accident and an injury – with a final visceral glimpse of food, beer and blood mixing into one.

The Woman Who Ran

Dir Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2020

Synopsis: While her husband is on a business trip, Gamhee meets three of her friends. She visits the first two at their homes, and the third she encounters by chance at a theatre. While they make friendly conversation, as always, several currents flow independently above and below the surface.

Our take: The Woman Who Ran rests on a straightforward premise – a woman visits old friends whom she hasn’t seen for years. Over food and drink, the conversations start off light-hearted, but she mentions more than once that she hasn’t been away from her husband for even a day in five years. Is that ‘true love’ as claimed, or is she seeking refuge in a time long past? With a cast of top Korean actresses, the underlying heartache and metaphors throughout are a fantastic example of a complex story told simply.

Dead Pigs

Dir Cathy Yan, China, 2018

Synopsis: The fates of an unlucky pig farmer, a feisty home-owner defending her property, a lovestruck busboy, a disenchanted rich girl, and an American expat pursuing the Chinese Dream converge and collide as thousands of dead pigs are found floating down the Huangpu River, towards a modernizing Shanghai.

Our take: Described as a satire, Cathy Yan’s debut is nothing short of an attacking comment on the rapid industrialisation of China at the expense of rural farmers. This family comedy-drama brings together the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, and pits animals against money. The acting is superb, with the legendary Vivian Wu deftly switching between a need for love, and an astounding stubbornness in the face of defeat. Stay until the end for that little bit of Yan’s absurdity.