“Food is everyone’s first language,” Paul Kwan says in the opening of Anatomy of a Springroll [SIC] (1994). Kwan made the documentary with partner Paul Iger to explore issues of personal identity, food memories, and cultural adaptation. It’s a dreamlike movie with historic footage, staged segments, animation, and even puppets!
There is Vietnamese food from beginning to end. Kwan’s spring roll is the fried cha gio wrapped in rice paper. He uses it as a metaphor for rediscovering his past as he ventures from San Francisco (where his family had settled after coming from Vietnam) to Saigon. He is Vietnamese of Chinese descent.
If you’re into Asian American identity, Kwan and Iger give you lots to think about. If you’re into food, you’ll see some scenes that remain the same today in Vietnam. There was lots of information about Vietnamese folklore and foodways too. Film buffs will appreciate the artiness of the piece, which somewhat echoes the reactions of visiting or returning Vietnam for the first time. My first time back was strange. Am I Vietnamese? American? Both or neither? Kwan posed those question and more.
Anatomy of a Springroll has aired on PBS several times and in 2008, it was part of the national public television series called Global Voices. Simon Bao alerted me that the movie was now on Hulu. (As BFMartin pointed out, Hulu is only available in the US so I just reposted it from YouTube.) I watched the movie years ago and viewing it again was like visiting an old friend. I could practically taste the flavors of all the glorious dishes in the film.
“Food is not just a thing, but a way. In its preparation, it’s the essence of language, and a connection to a culture,” Kwan says.
Check out Anatomy of a Springroll, and share your thoughts on the good and bad. It’s an hour long so you can certainly skim through it, as needed.
More Viet food in the media: