Rare representation of Vietnamese cuisine leaves viewers hungry for more

By Linh Do   August 15, 2021 | 01:59 am PT
Rare representation of Vietnamese cuisine leaves viewers hungry for more
A Scene from Phan Dang Di’s 2019 culinary film, ‘He Serves Fish, She Eats Flower,’ from HBO’s eight-part ‘Food Lore’ series. In this film, where food is treated as an integral part of the story, a male cook tries to court a stewardess with food. Photo courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
Despite a few memorable glimpses, Vietnamese cinema and television are yet to do full justice to the country’s delicious and diverse culinary tradition.

The ubiquitousness of traditional food in Korean TV dramas, which has contributed to making Korean cuisine world famous, begs the question: Why can’t the local film industry do the same?

Ask any Vietnamese viewer about Korean dramas, and they can easily reel off the top of their head a dozen constantly featured Korean dishes such as kimchee, gimpap, seaweed soup, and noodles in black bean sauce.

Even better, the Korean film industry, as part of the larger national strategy to export Korean culture known as Hallyu or the Korean Wave, has churned out captivating stories about food, such as the 2003 international hit, ‘Jewel in the Palace,’ a historical series about Dae Jang Geum, Korea’s first female physician who lived in the 16th century and could cure illnesses with medicinal food.

To Vietnamese audiences, their cuisine, which has increasingly been praised for its richness and healthiness, certainly deserves to be represented too.

Indeed, in recent years popular local dishes such as pho (traditional noodles), goi cuon (fresh summer rolls) and banh mi (sandwich) have been ranked among the world’s best dishes by media outlets like CNN and Fodor’s Travel.

Last year the World Records Union (WorldKings) also recognized five culinary world records set by Vietnam involving dishes such as pho and goi cuon.

But while there is no dearth of straightforward YouTube channels, game and reality shows showcasing Vietnamese landscapes, cuisine and recipes such as Taste of Vietnam with American chefs Martin Yan and Robert Danhi, subtler, more symbolic treatment of food in movies and TV dramas remains few and far between.

Just appetizers

In contemporary films, Vietnamese cuisine earns a few honorable mentions in foreign works such as Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2005 Sundance award-winning movie, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ about a quirky high-school boy whose favorite history teacher loves facts and pho, and Andy Fickman’s sitcom series ‘Kevin Can Wait’ featuring a hilarious restaurant scene in which Kevin, after expressing his skepticism about a bowl of pho in front of him, tries the soup and finds it "insane."

The irresistible pho has also appeared in several Korean dramas.

It featured in Phan Dang Di’s 2019 film ‘Chang Dang Ca, Nang An Hoa' (He Serves Fish, She Eats Flower), part of HBO’s eight-episode project titled ‘Food Lore’ on Asian culinary traditions, and in a 2015 food and martial arts flick, Nguyen Quoc Duy’s action comedy ‘Kungfu Pho’ about a competition between two families to inherit a secret pho recipe.

Some well-known award-winning films have also raised the international profile of other Vietnamese dishes.

French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s idiosyncratic ‘Mui Du Du Xanh' (The Scent of Green Papaya), which won two awards at Cannes in 1993, and his 2000 movie ‘Mua He Chieu Thang Dung' (The Vertical Ray of the Sun) both capture the making of delightful dishes such as green papaya salad, fried pork with Chinese broccoli, baby jackfruit sticky rice, and boiled chicken with slow, close-up and sensuously beautiful photography.

Seen through nostalgic lenses, Vietnamese cuisine can take on poignant meanings about cultural and personal identity, as in Vietnamese-American filmmaker Liesl Nguyen’s intimate 2011 short film ‘Thuc Don Ngay Chu Nhat' (Sunday Menu). In this short, a Vietnamese-German teenager can only find herself and pose confidently for a photo after she masters a difficult Lunar New Year dish, thit dong, or Vietnamese meat jelly.

Thit dong or meat jelly, a typical Lunar New Year dish in Liesl Nguyen’s 2011 short film ‘Sunday Menu,’ in which food symbolizes cultural and personal identity. Photo courtesy of the (now defunct) international Yxineff online film festival.

"Thit dong" or meat jelly, a typical Lunar New Year dish in Liesl Nguyen’s 2011 short film ‘Sunday Menu,’ in which food symbolizes cultural and personal identity. Photo courtesy of the (now defunct) international Yxineff online film festival.

In another famous artistic movie, director Nguyen Vinh Son’s ‘Trang Noi Day Gieng' (The Moon at the Bottom of the Well), the culinary art of Vietnam’s last feudal capital Hue takes center stage, unfolding under the meticulous care of its heroine, who epitomizes traditional family values associated with women.

In television, many film series have taken the trouble to shoot carefully set up cooking scenes and showcase common Vietnamese dishes, and quite a few also explore culinary themes.

Notable examples range from the ground-breaking 2006 Vietnamese-Korean drama ‘Mui Ngo Gai' (Scent of Coriander) about a self-made businesswoman who works her way up from serving as a waitress in a pho restaurant, the first drama ever about traditional Vietnamese food, to the 2020 series ‘Vua Banh Mi' (King of Sandwiches), a local remake of the Korean series ‘Bread, Love and Dreams’ known for its director Nguyen Phuong Dien’s efforts to adapt the original’s bread and cakes to Vietnamese sandwiches and reproduce the art of baking as faithfully as possible.

What more can be done?

However, many people agree that in general the representation of Vietnamese cuisine in films remains scanty and mediocre.

Chau Quang Phuoc, a media and film distribution expert who has worked on numerous film projects for BHD, says that this is an undeniable fact, for both filmmakers many of whom are very interested in visually appealing food stories, and local audiences who have high expectations for a culinary tradition well loved and respected by western chefs like Anthony Bourdain.

Indeed, food is still mostly treated as a side show - in one table scene or dialogue or another here and there - rather than as a deeper, integral part of characterization and story-telling, and certainly not yet fully explored to create a distinct genre to take pride in.

Director Phan Dang Di says with the current state of contemporary Vietnamese films, not just culinary themes, but other important ones such as love, family, politics, and money too tend to be treated in a superficial and trite manner.

"We always lack approaches that are personal, interesting, elaborate, and subtle in portraying life unlike in Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese or Hong Kong films.

"Compared to them, our cinema and television have a bland taste and smell."

According to insiders, the first and foremost difficulty in making culinary, or any film for that matter, is cost. Phuoc says filmmaking is ultimately an expensive game, even for developed film industries, and so funding always remains the most decisive factor.

Even the Vietnamese films with the biggest budgets cannot yet be compared with much better invested Thai or Chinese blockbusters in technical quality, special effects, set design, costumes, or props, he points out.

Because good culinary films in particular need to be done with care, even need experts’ consultation, and food easily deteriorates and loses colors and requires costly reshooting, many Vietnamese commercial film producers, who already struggle to make profits, would rather opt for safer, more dramatic and popular genres such horror and crime, he says.

For making ‘He Serves Fish, She Eats Flower,’ Di and his crew indeed had to hire professional cooks and food stylists to provide training to actors, act in difficult technical scenes and monitor food arrangement that requires plenty of fresh ingredients on hand for repeated reshooting.

The film crew also had to hire fishermen in Nha Trang to dive into the sea to catch puffer fish, transport them to HCMC, and keep them alive until the shoot ended, besides ordering a lot of expensive seafood which would be "impossible to do with average Vietnamese production budgets," Di says.

There thus seems agreement that to systematically make good culinary films, which Di says can explore the role of Vietnamese cuisine in daily life as well as during famous historical events, filmmakers cannot do it alone, and need some ambitious, well-coordinate national strategy like the Korean Wave or active sponsorship by cultural authorities.

Di strongly supports active government sponsorship of cultural films of which, culinary elements are certainly among the most interesting, worthwhile and curious ones for both domestic and international audiences.

He says in many countries, cultural authorities have successfully promoted their cultures through culinary films, so to make really good films about Vietnamese cuisine, "there is no other way than for us, Vietnamese to work things out together", he concludes.

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