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