Screening twice on Wednesday (February 4) and once on Thursday (February 5) as this month’s Doc Soup offering – tickets are available here – The Search For General Tso is director Ian Cheney’s investigation into the phenomenon of American Chinese cuisine.
Cheney leans heavily on the work of journalist and author Jennifer 8 Lee, who is credited as a producer and appears as one of the talking heads, and if you’ve read Lee’s excellent book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles you know that she’s already done the deep-diving required for a doc like this. Lee’s book is an ethnographic study of not just the evolution of Western Chinese food but Chinese-American culture itself, using the restaurants that pepper American cities as a lever into the way an immigrant population arrives and assimilates, adjusting its identity (and its palate) to suit a new land.
Unfortunately, The Search For General Tso turns out to be frustrating and superficial. Running just 71 minutes, it barely scratches the surface of its subject. Cheney shuffles through Lee’s topics as though he’s afraid of losing our attention, and failing even to address the most obvious questions – like what the dish we call General Tso’s Chicken tasted like before it was adjusted to please American tastebuds. (Seriously, he walks right up to that, and somehow forgets to tell us.)
Perhaps you can ask Cheney at the Q&As following Wednesday night’s screenings. Or better yet, ask Lee, who’ll be in town for Thursday night’s show. She’s probably better positioned to answer in detail anyway.
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