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Review: The Search for General Tso

Ian Cheney doesn’t delve too deeply into the possibly unsettling questions the documentary raises about society at large.

The Search for General Tso
Photo: Sundance Selects

Beginning as an inquiry into the history behind General Tso’s chicken, that staple of Chinese-American cuisine, The Search for General Tso becomes a more incisive study of cultural identity and assimilation once director Ian Cheney discovers that no one in China—certainly no one in the Hunan province, where the real General Tso, Qing-dynasty general Zuo Zongtang, was born and raised—has actually tasted, much less heard of, this sweet and spicy fried-chicken dish. Taking off from an ironic point made by one expert that Zuo was staunchly against Western influence in China, Cheney traces this culture clash all the way back to 1849, when many Chinese immigrated to San Francisco during the Gold Rush and found themselves the targets of often-violent forms of racism—an attitude that reached an ignominious height with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Upon seeing that restaurant jobs were the only ones available to many Chinese throughout the U.S., many of these immigrants latched onto the idea of adapting certain dishes to satisfy American palates—and thus the seeds were planted for today’s ubiquitous Chinese-American dishes. In touring through the origins of such customs, the doc exudes an essayistic quality that offers plenty of thought-provoking material to ponder. Cheney, through his various interview subjects, builds up to the question of whether the Chinese have, in fact, lost something of value in their drive to assimilate with American culture. But he disappointingly opts to end the film on an insistently upbeat conciliatory note. Sure, it all comes down to the food, specifically whether General Tso’s chicken actually tastes good or not, but given the manner in which the score wraps the film’s conclusion in a wave of feel-good affirmation, it’s as if Cheney doesn’t want to delve too deeply into the possibly unsettling questions it raises about society at large.

Director: Ian Cheney Screenwriter: Ian Cheney Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 72 min Rating: NR Year: 2014

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