Rice Rhapsody

Film review by Lee Alon

Translated literally to English as Hainan Chicken Rice, or South Sea Chicken Rice, Kenneth Bi's 2004 polish galore rides the food angle in a manner a bit too reminiscent of Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman, with the two having more than culinary delights in common. The newer release likewise wants to hop on the bandwagon by way of presenting international spectators with a pleasant premise where everyone's friendly and cheerful, and everything looks brightly colorful as if fresh out of an Ikea catalog. Not necessarily major faults, but if in the market for hard-hitting content, look elsewhere, let alone since Rice Rhapsody does attempt a dabble in the more controversial, namely homosexuality, but stops short of genuinely addressing issues of any meaningful disposition.

At least it does reasonably well in the political correctness department, touching on the topic matter-of-factly and without prejudice or sensationalism. It also features auteur Sylvia Chang, director of notable flicks Princess D and 20-30-40, in one of her better performances. In addition, through the introduction of a Western exchange student into proceedings, the film engages viewers in multicultural interaction of a variety less stereotypical than usual, a substantial plus right there. However, despite these pros Rice Rhapsody in the end culminates in a flat, unremarkable experience that won't stay with you very long, unlike other products in its range, like excellently emotional Yi Yi (2000). Furthermore, the decision to make this into a Singapore-based item seems random and bizarre, especially since the main character and star obviously insist on reverting to what sounds suspiciously akin to Taiwanese (Chang's from Taiwan in case you were wondering). For her part, she does pretty well as restaurant owner Jen, straddled with three successful sons whose sexual orientation and lifestyle she reluctantly accepts. Her greatest hope lies with youngest offspring Leo (Lepham Tan), a student on his way to finding a path through life.
Things go more or less as per normal for the family and Jen's rival-would-be-lover Kim Chui (Martin Yan), a fellow eatery proprietor competing with her titular signature dish, Hainan Chicken Rice (his version has duck instead). Normal, that is, until Jen's worries over the kids all playing for the same team begin to encroach, and she enlists Kim Chui's help in saving the day. This he attains, or deigns to, by shacking up French intellectual traveler Sabine (Melanie Laurent) with Jen and last bird in the nest Leo, hoping the two will strike up a relationship that'll bring the lad back from the brink. The ensuing plot involves a little bit of several themes, most memorable of these the existential discourse between Sabine and Leo, parts of which take place in a cemetery for sheer effect. Naturally, the plan goes slightly awry, with Sabine not always playing along with the script and generally showing more overt interest in simply making the most of her Singapore jaunt instead of catering to Jen and her matchmaking schemes. She also never really signs up for classes, official reason for being in the city state to begin with. While on the Singapore front, save for a few glimpses of Tiger Beer you'd be hard pressed to even notice the seldom-used locale, opposite of what we’ve come to expect from Hong Kong, for example. There's one ambient highlight, though, with hottie Maggie Q stepping in as starlet Gigi, an underutilized extra idling screen time chomping on entrees instead of enlightening Leo with her obvious allure. Also keep an eye out for a quick cameo from legendary Shaw actress, Ivy Ling Po.
And although Sabine's incapable of using chopsticks (laugh at the "foreigners" again, why not), overall one must assert Rice Rhapsody really doesn't try to cash in on any Asian vs. Western tripe, nor does it make a big deal of cross-cultural love affairs. In fact, it makes a big deal of nothing at all, opting for a smiles-all-around, friendly approach that borders on a somewhat unwanted, and largely ineffective, comedic angle. Suffice to say the greatest moment of tension throughout comes at a cooking contest towards the end, and let us tell you it ain't no Iron Chef at that.
But at least you have Sylvia Chang pulling off a manifold, believable depiction of basically her own self, and a film devoid of absolutely any disturbing or otherwise risky aspects. For those on a mission to watch as many movies from the greater China region as possible (sounds familiar), Rice Rhapsody probably makes for a decent companion to stuff like Pushing Hands et al. It's also the first of JCE Productions' international iterations, marking the beginnings of Jackie Chan's endeavors as world-hugging producer on the global stage through is own outfit. Probably more than this though, Rice Rhapsody comes in handy for watching with your mom or sisters during one of those family afternoons we get once in a while. Have fun and try to take it seriously: this one won't do that for you.

Rating: 6/10

Directed by Kenneth Bi
Starring Sylvia Chang, Lepham Tan, Melanie Laurent, Martin Yan, Maggie Q
2004, English/Putonghua, 110 minutes

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