Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Depth Review: My Rice Noodle Shop

My Rice Noodle Shop (1998, Yang Xie) versus April Story (1998, Shunji Iwa)

The year is 1949 and times are difficult. China is plagued by internal strife between the communists (who as you may know would eventually be lead by Mao Tse-Tung) and the nationalists (KMT). Supporters of the former were many to flee to Taiwan in the hopes that soon their side would overthrow the communists.

Such is the backdrop for Yang Xie’s film about a 40 something noodle shop owner, Rong Rong (Carol ‘Do Do’ Cheng). She grew up in the small but lovely town of Guilin, where her grandfather owned his own rice noodle restaurant. But with the emergence of the communists, she and several other colourful characters from Guilin moved to Taipei. My Rice Noodle Shop functions as a series of episodes, although linked in the narrative sense, about Miss Rong’s trials and tribulations as the rice noodle shop owner. Among the cast of characters who frequent her establishment are an ex state officer, a formerly wealthy real estate business man and a school teacher, Mr. Lu (Kevin Lin).

For the most part, the movie functions as a drama. The reasons for this are evident. All these people had far more respectable and wealthy lives back in Guilin. This is shown through a series of flashbacks which set up each individual nicely. Having left it all behind out of fear of persecution, their current lives meander in poverty. Some of them who come to eat everyday do not even possess sufficient funds to pay for their meals and owe considerable debts to Mrs Rong. The film does make certain brief attempts at comedy, but they are rather painful and consist mostly of cussing, kind of like bad Kevin Smith dialogue (although that may have been more about the quality of the subtitles I found). Drama for realism’s sake is something I very much support. However, I was a tad disappointed so witness the fates the movie reserved for each of the customers. While I shan’t spoil everything, allow me to alert anyone curious about the film that none of the customers comes out all smiles. In fact, each of their individual fates is quite sad, depressing and pathetic. I can understand the logic behind this decision by Xie and the writers given the economic and political conditions of the time, but it was a bit much too handle. When writing this, I have in mind especially the up and coming school teacher, Mr. Lu, who has been saving money for years in order to set up a nice wedding and marriage for his sweet heart who is still living in mainland China. What happens to him is so depressing it almost feels as if the film was being too manipulative.

By I have criticized the film enough. I did, in fact, enjoy it a fair bit. The film’s strength lies in the strength of its central character, Rong Rong. Her flashbacks show a time when she was deemed one of the prettiest girls in Guilin and became the beautiful wife of an army general. She was wealthy and happy, even though there was every now and then the fear that her husband may not return from battle. Today she has lost the beauty that provided her such high esteem, her husband (dead) and much of her wealth. I was pleasantly surprised that the story spends most of its time with her at this stage in her life. In another movie the story would have been about her youth when she was a beauty. In another still she would have possibly been relegated to a supporting role only. None of that here. Instead, this 40 something, less beautiful than before women takes center stage. And she becomes all the more beautiful for it. She’s a business woman first and foremost and needs to keep her shop running with a profit. She grows weary of her regular customers not being able to pay, but she still lets them come and eat out of compassion. She keeps a loving and watchful eye over her niece, who plans to marry a soldier, just as she did back in her youth. Mrs. Rong warns her niece of the possible heart breaking fate that may await her husband. This is done in a loving manner, much in the way a mother would do it towards her daughter. The movie treats Mrs. Rong very fairly and makes her an interesting and complex character. Her flashbacks and reactions to them hint that she longs for her home town of Guilin and for the better days of her past. But she still finds the energy to see through every day. Her sights are never lead entirely astray from the future. It’s her determination and will to succeed that keep the restaurant afloat, and herself out of depression. It is also obvious that she takes great pride in her business and often boasts that her rice noodles are the finest in Taipei. Carol Cheng gives a complete performance, thus making Mrs. Rong a fully realized character with ambitions, fears, and dreams. The end does not say whether or not she will one day find the happiness and security she seeks, but her story ends on a more hopeful note than those of her compatriots. Her story is far more fulfilling and engaging.

I love it when a movie can provide a strong central female character, so My Rice Noodle Shop was still, despite the shortcomings I discovered, a good movie. Compelling stories the feature female actors in leading roles are difficult to find (Kieslowski's Three Colors comes to mind) so I tend to cherish the ones I stumble across. Carol Cheng carries the film with an inspiring performance which at times shows the right amount of energy, and at other times sublime subtlety. For the acting alone this is a worthwhile film. The casting is excellent, even though a few directorial decisions, particularly with regards to the narrative, were questionable.

This is also the second in in a couple of weeks that I discover an impressive Taiwanese movie. Up until then my experience with cinema from the region was close to non-existent, but now my eyes are beginning to open to a whole new pool of movies waiting to be explored. Taiwanese filmmakers have very interesting stories to tell and look forward to watching more.

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