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What’s Cooking

writer/director Gurinder Chadha
co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges
distributor New Vision
national release May 17


It’s Thanksgiving in LA. An advert on a bus streaks by, a wholesome whitebread family proudly holding up a turkey. Hey hetero! Beach boys memories, la la land. Luckily, What’s Cooking is not just another Hollywood take full of overripe dialogue and sticky sentimentality. Gurinder Chadha is standing on the outside looking in (her first feature Bhaji on the Beach was a superbly realised intercultural experience) and, as is often the case with directors not from US directing US films (Ang Lee’s Ice Storm and Ride With The Devil for example) her perceptions open the gates to a new filmic world: the advertisement glides past to the bus’s interior, a mix of cultures and passions, loud, debating, pashing, stirring. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the US is a land of migrants.

Four families, 4 Thanksgiving dinners­—Afro-American, Latin-American, Vietnamese, Jewish—where mums (as always) are the glue. It’s a challenging ensemble piece and the writing and acting are feisty: big and small names wrestling for solid, shared and sometimes sacred ground. The characters, like Jong Ling’s camerawork, are fluid. The men and boys shift allegiances, they don’t seem to connect—“without your father here…there’ll be leftovers for the first time”—smoothing things over or staying silent, camouflaged against the bright women, who live and breathe conflict and tenacity, silently simmering or bubbling over. A mother questions her son’s sense of family: “talking on computers…ain’t the same thing.”

Imaginative cross-cultural-cutting highlights the complexities of issues (people don’t agree within families, let alone communities) and keeps the pace as machine-gun-quick as conversation between middle aged Ruth and Herb Seelig (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin), who have settled into that years-together rhythm that defies any real communication: she says, “your signal’s on”, he says, “I know.” Even though the indicator has been blinking for miles. Expectat­ions. A word to tear any relationship apart, and undercutting all 4 stories are the next generation, American-raised, straddling 2 worlds of their parents’ ideals and their own. Almost intimate. Not quite touching. Carla (ER’s Julianna Margulies), after trying to cuddle up to her lover Rachel (Kyra Sedgwick) on 2 single beds shoved together in a girly bedroom, laments “all night I was in the crack.”

This is no idealised inter-racial world. LA is a shifting city where people’s attitudes can change. Or stay the same. Bigotry can be subtle or overt or overcome by humour, patience and self-deprecation. Jimmy (a wonderfully awkward performance by Will Yun Lee) lies to his mother Trinh (Joan Chen) about being in college and then spends Thanksgiving with his girlfriend who lives just round the corner. In a gentle poke at stereotypes, her father and brother can only relate to him by talking about Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies. His girlfriend’s mother Elizabeth (a crafty and vivacious Mercedes Ruehl) asks him, “where are you from?” On auto pilot he says, “I was born in Vietnam.” She smiles, but that’s not what she meant. Writer/director Chadha comments: “Most American films…with people from different communities are either buddy-buddy films, that kind of black cop-white cop thing, or films about conflict within 2 communities…It was very important to us that race was just a given, not problematised. That’s how most people live. I don’t think that most people of colour go around continually dealing with other people in terms of racial conflict.”

What’s Cooking is also a love story, a meditation on the relationship between family and food. Food as desire, perfection, control, dissent, belonging, cultural signifier. There are many ways to mash a potato. Chadha’s documentary background is evident in the food preparation and meal scenes, as the camera plunges in from above into the sweet steam while delicate meanings are sifted and spat out. A shiitake mushroom stuffing threatens a relationship. Little kids assimilate Kentucky Fried Chicken dreams. The turkey goes into the oven Vietnamese-style (one half a brilliant fiery chilli-red, the other white and lifeless), while a sullen teenager complains, “why do you wanna make turkey taste like everything else we eat?”

With Consuming Passions and SBS’s A Food Lover’s Guide, weekend newspapers chockablock with dining and consuming, and the success of films such as Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night and the recent Chocolat, Australians seem to be insatiable foodies, keen to explore unusual tastes and be inventive with new ingredients. When it comes to filmmaking too, the time is right to cook up our own vibrant cultural mix.

Walk The Talk

writer/director Shirley Barrett
distributor 20th Century Fox
national release March 15
preview screening & Q+A with Shirley Barrett and producer Jan Chapman, Popcorn Taxi, Valhalla, Sydney, March 5


It’s not very often we get to see an Australian director’s second film but Shirley Barrett has been touched by God, or David Geffen, the G in Dreamworks SKG (a hug with Spielberg of course). Five million, no questions asked. Enough has been said (Good Weekend, smh.com.au) about the film’s unusual history, a (relatively) low budget feature with Hollywood backing and local actors, but what’s curious is the synchronicity between the film’s content—positive thinking and ‘following your dream’—and its making.

Jan Chapman loves Barrett’s “take on the foibles of the Australian character” already revealed in the Cannes award winning Love Serenade. This was a film you either loved or hated and Walk The Talk is no different. Joey (Salvatore Coco) is an angel of success/destruction, spouting neurolinguistic platitudes/truths gleaned from evangelical churches, life affirming seminars and, I’d guess, Good Morning Australia with Bert. In his quest for a higher self he cruises restlessly through the Gold Coast streets getting a fix on “vulnerability” and using “his special gift.” It’s all about “reprocessing” he tells anyone who’ll listen including his girlfriend Bonita (Sacha Horler) in a wheelchair singing the gospel and revelling in irony: “I’m walking on sunshine WOH-HO and don’t it feel GOOD.” But Joey thinks she “chooses to be a paraplegic.” The old new age slap em in the face and blame em for their illness cos we all have the power to choose our own recovery with the powers of positive thinking.

Walk The Talk becomes frustrating because, like Joey, it doesn’t recognise its own boundaries. The opening is hilarious and pumps at such a furious pace (the feelgood footage of penguins slipping and dithering on the ice over the strains of The Impossible Dream is a perfect condensation of human stuggle and the cynical marketing of Optus ads) that the rest of the film seems to slide. And the characters loom so much larger than life from the beginning that, in the mounting hysteria, they have no solid surface to claw onto, despite some clever writing and good casting. In particular, Nikki Bennett deftly manoeuvres the immovable Nikki beyond bimbo status (cast after Barrett saw her performing Miss Otis Regrets on the Midday Show), her strange flat intonation and iceblock persona, combined with a “va va voom” body, perfectly capturing the ‘ideal woman’ completely out of sync with the “sunny disposition” and “affectionate nature” she is meant to have. The best thing about Joey is that his “instinct” is always completely off the mark.

From the beautiful hinterland of Tamborine Mountain, the highrises of the Gold Coast look like gravestones, a perfect setting for impossible dreams, and Mandy Walker’s cinematography (Barrett calls it “enhanced bleak”) evokes a harsh and faded world of “damaged goods”—lonely oldies and pokies, siliconed women and jaded singers. Tacksville. Barrett argues that the film is not a satire but it needs to be to succeed. Perhaps she just loves her characters too much. Perhaps she watches too much daytime TV. The film seems to have another darker plot lingering underneath its slippery surfaces, that Barrett knows is there but is too nervous to acknowledge. Apparently, the cabaret scenes were originally set in Twin Towns Services Club but after reading the script, management refused, and sent it back with suggested changes marked on yellow sticky notes. I’d love to know what they wrote…

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 16

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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