Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Chen Yu-hsun, 2013)

In these high speed days, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that “cooking means something” or at least it should do according to “Doctor Gourmet” Hai (Tony Yang). A warm tribute to the Taiwanese tradition of bandoh outdoor banquets, Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Zǒng Pù Shī) positions the figure of the chef as a kind of conduit bridging the gap between people through the art of well cooked food. Heroine Wan (Kimi Hsia Yu-chiao), however, thoroughly rejected the ambitions of her top chef father and determined on a life in the city with her heart set on becoming a famous model, actress, and celebrity. 

Life in Taipei is however hard. Career success is hard to come by and duplicity lurks round every corner. Wan learns this to her cost when two shady guys turn up on the pretext of delivering a birthday cake only to explain to her that her boyfriend, whose loans she’s unwisely co-signed, has skipped town and left her with the bill. Confused and afraid, Wan decides to skip town herself, planning to head back to her hometown and ask her mother for help. What she discovers however is that her mother is on the run too after losing the family restaurant partly through her subpar cooking skills which could never match those of her late husband, and partly through the betrayal of his apprentice who poached all their best customers and set up on his own. Despite being “in hiding”, the only way Puffy (Lin Mei-hsiu) has been able to make ends meet is by putting on an impromptu dance show in the central square to promote her small noodle stall. Luckily for them both, Wan makes a chance encounter on the train with a nice young man, Hai, who turns out to be a “Doctor Gourmet” specialising in “fixing” failing restaurants.

His arrival comes at just the right moment as Wan and her mother get a visit from potential clients – a sweet older couple who first met 50 years previously at a wedding catered not by Wan’s father Master Fly Spirit, but by his now departed mentor. Wan’s mother was going to turn the request down because neither she nor Wan know how to make the traditional dishes the couple are looking for, but Wan makes an impromptu decision to try and make their wedding dreams come true, warning them that it might take a little extra time and not quite match up to their romantic expectations. 

Wan’s problem is that she always hated her family’s restaurant. She resented the heat and the smell and the grease, often placing an empty box over her head and retreating into a fantasy world to escape the chaos. Her father wanted her to take over, leaving her a notebook filled with his recipes which was unfortunately stolen by a homeless man who mugged her at the station, but she was dead set on escape and becoming a “someone” in the city. Unlike her mother, however, she has real talent for cooking and is equally skilled at using her good looks and sweet nature to get things done. Soon after her arrival at the noodle stand, she’s already got herself a gang of geeky groupies calling themselves “Animals on Call” who are ready to do pretty much anything she asks of them. 

That comes in handy when Puffy persuades her to enter a national cooking competition where her rival is none other than Tsai, the apprentice who betrayed them, backed up another famous ex-chef Master Ghost Head (Hsi Hsiang) who has a fiery temper and spent some time in prison which might be why he still dresses like an ultra cool motorcycle guy from the ‘70s. There were apparently three great masters, the other being the eccentric  Master Silly Mortal (Wu Nien-jen) who is later discovered living in a subway tunnel where he keeps the art of bandoh alive through a literal underground restaurant where his regulars bring him a selection of ingredients before sitting down to enjoy a communal meal. It’s Silly Mortal whose food is said to evoke human feelings who guides Wan towards a series of epiphanies about the nature of “traditional” food. According to him, there are no rules about what goes together, and having a “traditional” heart is really about embracing the true nature of bandoh. Only by having a heart full of joy can you make good food. 

Equally eccentric in some respects, Hai takes a back seat after reminding Wan that cooking is really a way of sending a coded message to its intended target. The two goons eventually join the team, working together earnestly to prepare for the biggest banquet of all which is both the old couple’s wedding celebration and the competition’s finale. Master Ghost Spirit talks about taking the “grief” out of meat through fine cutting, while Master Silly Mortal is all about putting positive emotions in, but the missing piece of the puzzle is Master Fly Spirit who sends his final message to Wan only after death as she rediscovers him through his recipes. Not quite giving up on her celebrity career, Wan embraces her inner chef, happy with the idea of making lunchboxes to sell at the station with her new friends and family rather than chasing money through oddly nihilistic cuisine as Tsai had done. In the end, it’s all about joy and togetherness, sharing tasty food in the open air where anyone and everyone is welcome to bring whatever they have to the table.


Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

Nina Wu poster 1“They’re not just destroying my body but my soul” complains an exploited woman in a film within a film, “I’ll do something you’ll all regret” she adds, only the actress never will. Penned by leading actress Wu Ke-xi, Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Zhuó Rén Mì) provides a timely exploration of the gradual erasure of the self the pursuit of a dream can entail in a fiercely patriarchal, intensely conservative culture. Arriving in the wake of the #metoo scandal the film goes in hard for industry exploitation but never tries to pretend that these are issues relating to the film industry alone or deny the various ways it informs and is informed by prevailing social conservatism.

Originally from the country, the titular Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) has been in Taipei for eight years trying to make it as an actress but is still awaiting that big break. Aside from some small bit parts and commercial jobs, she supports herself by working in restaurants with a side career as a live-streaming webcam star. Then, just as she’s starting to think it’s too late, a call comes through – she’s in the running for the lead in a high profile period spy thriller. The only snag is that the part requires full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes.

Nina is understandably conflicted. Aside from the potential discomfort, taking a part in the kind of film this could turn out to be is a huge gamble that could either make or break her career (just look at what happened to Tang Wei after Lust Caution, itself a period thriller about a female assassin who falls for her target). Nina’s unsympathetic agent skirts around the fact this might be her last chance while promising to respect her decision, implying it’s this or nothing. Of course, neither he nor the sleazy director inviting parades of identically dressed hopefuls up to his hotel room where he forces them to engage in dubious acts of degradation for his own enjoyment will admit that the reason they want a “fresh face” isn’t for any artistic motivation but that no well established actress with a proper agent would ever take a role like this (and even if she did, she couldn’t be pushed around in the same way).

Convincing herself to do whatever it takes, Nina takes the part but goes on to suffer at the hands of a controlling and tyrannical director who psychologically tortures and physically abuses her supposedly in order to get the performance he wants rather than the one she chooses to give him. A repeated motif sees hands continually around Nina’s throat as if she were being permanently strangled, unable to speak or express herself, permitted breath only when compliant with the desires of men.

Subsuming herself into the part, Nina avoids having to think about the various ways her offscreen life is also a performance or of her own complicity in the erosion of her emotional authenticity. A visit home reveals a difficult family environment with a father (Cheng Ping-chun) losing out in the precarious modern economy, while she, now the “famous actress”, wonders if she was happier as an am dram bit player staging inspirational plays for children. The secret she seems so desperate to conceal seems to be her same sex love, sacrificed for a career in Taipei and now perhaps unsalvageable. Her lover has moved on, preparing to marry a man and embark on a socially conventional life. If she too has made her peace with sacrificing a part of her true self, she does at least seem superficially “happy” in contrast to Nina’s gradually fracturing psyche.

Meanwhile, Nina becomes paranoid that a mysterious woman is stalking her. Apparently another hopeful also driven mad by the demands of an exploitative industry, the woman is convinced Nina has taken what was rightfully hers and done so by selling her body for career advancement. Yet as time goes on we begin to wonder if the film ever happened at all or is only a part of Nina’s fabricated delusion sparked Marienbad-style by the single traumatic event on which the film ends, filled as it is with a lingering sense of tragic defeat. Nina Wu never takes her longed for revenge, even if she (perhaps) gains it in a kind of success, but silently endures as the misuse of her body begins to destroy her soul and leaves her nothing more than an empty vessel on which the desires of others are projected.


Nina Wu was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)