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An Incredible and Ordinary Feast

The Trained Chinese Tongue, dir. Laurie Wen

Still from The Trained Chinese Tongue, dir. Laurie Wen

By Chanel Kong

“My piano used to be next to the kitchen when I was a kid…I remember resenting the crackling sounds of stir-fries, the pungent smells of black beans and garlic—they always put a greasy Chinese taint on my Chopin or Beethoven,” begins Laurie Wen in The Trained Chinese Tongue (1994), as crab claws are fried, dumplings are steamed, and sauces are prepared in a well-oiled wok. Structured in four vignettes of immersive interviews with women Wen approaches at a Boston Chinatown grocery store and with whom she subsequently follows home and joins for dinner, the film is propelled by Wen’s voiceover commentary and first-person participation as her subjects’ impromptu dinner guest. In its deft intertwining of conversations, voices, sounds, and recollections from and around the closely-observed minutiae of lived experience, The Trained Chinese Tongue is a performance of the diaspora and intercultural condition, by turns dissonant and polyphonous. These fluctuating counterpoints are vividly captured pushing and pulling between the personal and the collective, identification and alienation, and displacement and embodiment.

The film’s most palpable quality is its pint-sized portraits of women and their activities around food — shopping, cooking, preparing the table, and eating dinner. Extreme close-ups of freshly steamed fish topped with julienned ginger and scallion are accompanied by mundane and casual scenes of ingredients being rinsed and chopped, while family and friends gradually gather around the dining area. In the context of the immigrant and diaspora experience, these scenes suggest communal meals as a point of access to cultural memory, identity and cohesion. However, when invoked as a vernacular of the intercultural film, scholar Laura Marks asserts that such motifs and ritualized gestures “trace an elusive course between individual or cultural memory.”[1] In a film that seems to center around cooking and eating — where the viewer is prompted to engage in a direct, sensorial relationship with a cultural experience — food is verbally invoked in only two instances: at the beginning, when the filmmaker recalled her piano practice as a child in Hong Kong, and in the middle of the film, when Mr. Bau, an “American-born Chinese” hosting a dinner for his Japanese business associates, made an off-putting assumption about Wen’s ability to spit out chicken and fish bones. In sharp contrast to the warm, empathetic, and arguably gendered images of food-making, these blunt articulations foreground the intrinsic difficulty in anchoring intercultural identities, where individuals are at once tied to and disassociated with a so-called authentic culture.

Wen elaborates this reading of the diaspora experience in her recognition of dialects and linguistic registers. As a Cantonese speaker, she uses this dialect as a first point of contact with the women at the grocery store. Throughout the four vignettes, Wen thoughtfully notes whether the ability to speak a language helps or hinders her budding relationship with her interview subjects. With the mother-daughter duo Jenny and Tina, Wen found herself using Cantonese as a common language, as the mother hasn’t learned to speak English, the daughter spoke “much better English” than when Wen was her age, and the two of them would have spoken in Toishanese if Wen wasn’t filming. At the Baus’ house, Wen’s mastery of English was questioned despite being a Harvard student, reminding the filmmaker of how notions of success and inferiority had been ingrained in her learning of English even when she was a young fourth-grader in Hong Kong. With Lei Sheng, an art student from Taiwan, Wen found no dialect in common and was not able to communicate until Lei Sheng’s Chinese friend served as translator between Mandarin and Cantonese. Finally, in the last vignette, Wen was immediately welcomed into Auntie Lai’s “tribe…as long as we spoke the same language.” If representations and rituals around food are inherently unstable for intercultural individuals, then the practice of code-switching and translation — with their ability to either cut across or enunciate ethnicities, politics, and class divides — further complicates their identities within diaspora communities.

Recalling work by artists Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Trin T. Minh-ha in its intertextuality, Laurie Wen’s rarely-seen film further extends this exploration beyond its four main characters and the domestic environments in which Wen finds conversations and meal-making. The Trained Chinese Tongue is also necessarily a remarkable and spirited self-portrait of an emerging female filmmaker, “hiring [herself] as [her] own private investigator,” in search of embodying multiple and evolving identities.

[1] “The Memory of the Senses.” The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Laura U. Marks, Duke University Press, Durham; London, 2000, pp. 194–242.

Chanel Kong is currently Associate Curator, Moving Image, at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum for Visual Culture, which is slated to open in late 2021.

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