Bites: Our Quick Guide to Food on Film

With the hopes of finding something fun to celebrate in this early part of the year, we at the Bagri Foundation had developed the idea to consider food on film for Bites: A Taste of Asian Cinema – selected from the MUBI UK archive. With over 200 films to search through, the team really enjoyed trying to find relevant films from Asia, which could inspire a way of thinking about the role of meals or eating in their storytelling techniques and also fulfil our desire for some new recipes. This immediately brought to mind a wide array of movies in this genre such as The Lunchbox (2013), The Hundred Foot Journey (2014), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Chocolat (2000) and Julie & Julia (2009) to name a few. Each of these films starts from a place of enjoyment or pleasure – they focus heavily on the preparing, cooking and eating of the food, often including chefs or makers as a main character. But we also looked to include films where food plays a more subtle role, as a backdrop for important moments in time or as symbols for psychological undertones. Often, in these films, the viewer does not notice how powerful a scene featuring food was, until one begins to unravel it. As a rule of thumb, a filmmaker will not put food on screen unless it says something about the character or as a plot device and often food acts as a great metaphor, representing class, power, ritual, memory and more. The nine films selected as part of Bites have their own connection to this idea, each of which we explore below.

***Disclaimer: some of the below descriptions may contain spoilers***

Jiro Dreams of Sushi remains the more obvious choice from the line-up of films from Asia focusing on this subject and sits alongside those listed at the start. In this documentary, the Michelin starred sushi maestro stops at nothing in his search for the perfect sushi meal. Director David Gelb dwells on the precision of his ‘making’, through slow motion and close-up shots – building upon the visual properties of food on screen as a visceral and aesthetic pleasure (imagine all those supermarket commercials with glistening glazed ham and slowly poured cream onto a treacle tart). But as the film continues, we recognise that this perfection is a problem for his sons. How can anyone live up to his standards and what can Jiro do to pass this knowledge on? Against the backdrop of this tiny metro sushi bar, lies a family drama close to the heart of much of Japan’s wider worries around traditional ‘master artisans’, known as shokunin. With an aging population (Jiro is now 95) how will the next generation reach these same levels of pride in such detailed and thoughtful craft? Issues around overfishing are also referenced by the family and Jiro himself. This documentary has aged well in ten years, and still feels relevant to a rapidly changing and aging Japanese society and wider problems of overconsumption, all with sushi at its core.

Sweet Bean similarly utilises the idea of a chef as the main character. Sentaro grumpily makes and serves dorayaki pancakes, which he doesn’t even really like. Although it is not a unique premise to see this kind of archetypical character of a moody chef on screen, as seen in Burnt (2015), Chef (2014) and No Reservations (2007), Naomi Kawase shifts focus to an elderly woman, Tokue, who shows up at Sentaro’s food hut asking for a job, proceeding to make him the most delicious sweet bean paste he’s ever tasted. In this case, the warmth of a freshly made pancake symbolises a simple pleasure, on the same level as watching the blossom on a cherry tree sway in the wind. Tokue, in her eighties, has deformed hands, which Sentaro later learns is due to leprosy. To her, making the sweet bean paste is an example of how she has coped with being treated as an outcast, by taking joy in the sensory experiences in life – smell, taste, touch and sound. The friendship that blossoms over this shared recipe, and other revelations, shows the uniting force that food can have on personal relationships.

Stay Awake, Be Ready by Pham Thien An, is the only short film in our Bites collection. A street corner in Ho Chi Minh City is captured in a single shot that perfectly encapsulates the typical vibe of a night out, sitting on the pavement of these restaurants found across Vietnam, with plastic chairs, motorbikes, food stalls, chain smokers, performers and street sellers. But here we also experience violence off-screen in the form of a car accident and then a fight. Before the car crash, the protagonists are philosophising about the virtues of spirituality vs superficiality and pride – saying ‘they eat big, talk big’. The most affecting image which captures this sentiment, comes at the end when the filmmaker imbues the visceral effects of cuisine on screen. His final shot of a bloodied ankle, heavy rain, chicken feet and tipped over beer bottle, evokes the violence and grotesqueness of society’s waste and over-consumption of food.

The impact of such increased agricultural production, coupled with rapid industrialisation, is one of the storylines in Cathy Yan’s satire Dead Pigs.  The effects of a corporation’s desperate attempt to build a bizarre ‘Barcelona style’ development wreaks havoc upon the Wang family. Old Wang is a pig farmer who finds all of his pigs dead one night, wiping out his only form of income – made worse because he owes gangsters quite a large amount of money. Whilst his sister, beauty salon owner Candy, refuses to leave her house, the only thing standing as everything around her is rubble in preparation for the new development. The director was inspired by the 2013 true story of 16,000 dead pigs found in the Huangpu river outside of Shanghai, and it is this worldwide problem with animal rights and food production that keeps coming up throughout the film in reference to the ‘dead pigs’. Its ethos reminded me of the equally fantastic satire film Okja (2017) by Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho which also takes aim at the overt capitalist structures of increasing food consumption and dubious exports of animal products      (warning, Okja turned me into a vegetarian so watch at your own risk!).

River of Exploding Durians by Edmund Yeo continues this theme of industrialisation and its disruption to traditional ways of life. Fishermen      leave their village as the fish they catch start to make people sick due to polluted water from a new factory upstream, leading some characters to activism and a resulting loss of friendship in the local school. The durians in the title are sequenced throughout – as Ms Lim (the activist) eats one, she gets lost in a memory of her absent husband – whilst a lone shot of burning durian shells on the river front act as a metaphor for the destruction of each of their lives. Known as the ‘King of Fruits’ in Southeast Asia, the durian’s tough and spiky outer shell and pungent smell give it a mystical and tenacious reputation. It is much loved throughout Malaysia so feels a fitting representation of the accelerating changes in Yeo’s home country.

The ritual of a meal at a table with friends or family is another strong image typified in filmmaking and used as a plot device in many films and on television (just picture the ‘diner scene’ in almost any film). Conversation amongst the fare provides the backbone to The Woman Who Ran by Hong Sang-soo. The protagonist Gam-hee visits three of her friends whom she has not seen for a very long time. Over Korean bbq, the conversation gets off to a slow start about vegetarianism, food and life choices. The camera dwells on the friends at the table as they exchange pleasantries – which seem harmless at first. With the occasional zoom technique – the filmmaker expresses a desire for us to have a closer look at what is being said. Gam-hee mentions, with each friend, that she hasn’t been apart from her husband in five years because he believes that that is ‘true love’. Taking the title as a guide and considering the amount of food she eats throughout the film (even sitting alone in a cinema she chows down on more snacks), one realises that she has most likely escaped a controlling relationship. The role of meals throughout the film gives her a sense of connection to others in her life, and genuine nourishment for her soul. But we are left wondering whether it will be only temporarily filled.

Similar ideas of solidarity are explored in Something Useful, a poetic film directed by Pelin Esmer. The major turning point in the two protagonist’s relationship takes place in the diner car on a train. Over meatballs and coffee, Leyla and Canan slowly reveal their personal stories – one revisiting her high school friends after 25 years and the other off to resume her training to become a nurse but who would rather be an actress. Their journey continues off the train when Canan’s true reason for the journey is revealed – to help a quadriplegic man named Yavuz end his life.  The resulting conversations between him and Leyla, who he recognises as a successful poet that he admires, helps to bring Canan on a journey of self-realisation. Even Yavuz agrees to live another day, as he gazes outside to the beautiful sea and people watches, Leyla reminds him of finding poetry in the everyday.  At dinner with her high school friends, Leyla is celebrated as a great success, and because of that fateful encounter over meatballs, Canan also decides to follow her dreams.

Dreams are sadly of no use in Our Daily Bread, nor in So Long, My Son. Two evocative films which explore the lives of a family through simple means with food as a symbol of class, wealth, expectations and duty. The oldest film in our collection, Our Daily Bread by Mani Kaul is an incredible, slow-paced example of New Wave Indian Cinema. An experimentation in cinematography and pace, the simple story revolves around a young wife who delivers bread daily to her bus driver husband as he drives through the village. He rarely comes home as he has taken a lover, whilst she lives 2 miles away with her sister, who is under constant threat by other men in the village. One day she is unable to get the ingredients she needs to make him his meal because of an attack on her sister and is late to find her husband. The resulting shots of her hands on the loaf, her eyes looking down, and her silently waiting in the dark, hold an intensity of anger towards women’s plight, expectations, class and servitude. Her daily bread is the only thing she can provide to prove a dutiful and loving wife in the hopes of bringing him home.

So Long, My Son by Wang Xiaoshuai on the other hand spans decades rather than days, across the Cultural Revolution to the capitalist boom in China following the lives of one family who tragically loses a child in the opening scene. The first long distance shot is immediately followed by a scene around a dinner table with steamed buns – somehow a child of the same name is now a teenager. Through the use of a non-linear storyline, food and clothing place the characters, Liyun and Yaojun, in a time and place in Chinese history. Much of their early lives were as factory workers under the post-Mao communist regime. With simple accommodation and meagre food and drink, they were happy enough with friends and a young son. Until they fall pregnant with their second child and are forced by their friend to undergo an abortion as part of China’s one-child policy. Losing their jobs and then their only child, forces them to start a new life with an adopted son far away from their past. Liyun tries to hold the family together after such tragedy with simple offerings of steamed buns throughout the film. This is the only thing she has complete control over, an act of love for an unruly son and a depressed husband, no spread of ingredients, but instead, a cheap meal for sustenance, representing their status.

Through Bites we came to understand more how the role of food on film is extremely complex, and it is our intention to help viewers recognise the wider role that cooking, eating and those famous diner scenes have to play in cinematic technique. From a psychological place that generates physical responses to power plays and symbolism, directing culinary experiences as part of a story can offer so much insight into a character or a plot. But to fulfil our appetites now, we have already started cooking the many recipes that appear in the films, including Turkish lentil meatballs, steamed buns, ssambap, xialongbao, hotpot and kathi rolls. Durian is a bit harder to get hold of in the UK, but you can buy it frozen online. We hope you enjoy this culinary journey through Bites with us!

Further suggested reading includes:

  • Food in Film: A Culinary Performance of Communication by Jane F. Ferry. New York: Routledge, 2003
  • Reel Food by Anne L. Bower. New York: Routledge, 2004.
  • PhD by Abby Horowitz, “The Significance of the Ideological Meal Within the Food Film Genre”

-Chelsea Pettitt, Head of Arts, Bagri Foundation



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