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Review: Rice Rhapsody (2004) By Ken Lee
Though director Kenneth Bi's _Rice Rhapsody_ (2004) generates much interest primarily of its homosexuality theme (that troubled the Singapore Board of Film Censorship inasmuch as its month-long deliberation for the film's wide release in the city state in which the film is set and made), it explores at its core generational conflict; specifically, how a single parent's inability to adapt to modern circumstances leads to disillusionment and more misunderstanding. So it'd be misleading to categorize this as a "Gay" film, per se.
The plot is set in contemporary Singapore's Chinatown. Sylvia Chang, wonderful and enarmoured with supposed Singlish, plays a single mother (Jen) struggling with the uncertainty surrounding the sexual orientation of her third son, Leo (played by a certain delectable newcomer, Tan LePham), when his two elder siblings are both out and proud, much to her dismay, bringing issues of same-sex marriage and their boy-friends back to dinner table discussion. The lives of the family are going to be changed with the arrival of a French foreign exchange student, Sabine, played by a cooky Mélanie Laurent, who has a thing or two to show about finding common grounds, and knowing what's truly important in life.
The issue of homosexuality isn't a "modern" circumstance, of course. Its open acceptance (or tolerance) and embraced and head-on examination as an "idea", however, is, especially in this city-state notorious for its anti-gay "lifestyles" stance. So even if the movie isn't without its flaw, it's still ultimately uplifting, and a welcome addition to a growing list of movies purport to examine social, cultural and political aspects of the city-state, from "12 Storeys" to "Eating Air" to "Chicken Rice War".
Little known facts: Director Kenneth Bi is the son of Ivy Ling (Ling Bo) who is a mega star in Shaw's Huang Mei Diao era. She has a cameo appearance in this film.
I had heard of this film but didn't get to see it until it'd been
selected as one of the top 10 Chinese language films of 2005 by the
Chinese Film Critics Association. It certainly deserved this
prestigious honour because this dramatic comedy has a solid story, good
performances, beautiful scenery and amazing music.
The story is about a single mother, Jen (veteran Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang), and her three not-so-model sons. One by one the sons fail her expectations in various ways, mostly by becoming gay. In desperation she, with the help of a friend, Kim Chui (Martin Yan in a surprisingly natural and understated performance), come up with a plan to make sure her youngest son Leo stays straight and remains her "pride and joy."
This film deals with several phenomena in the modern Chinese society: homosexuality, which could be a metaphor for any "undesirable" quality the kids take on against their parents' wish; a middle-aged woman fighting social pressures; and the change in the parent-child relationship as the younger generation of Chinese moves away from the traditional "obey your elderly" doctrine. The best part is all these important issues are revealed in a very entertaining comedy of manners!
Sylvia Chang is wonderful as the "suffering" mother. The character of Jen is like many mothers, particularly Chinese mothers - strong and resilient. Her love for her sons is expressed through feeding and providing for them, and choosing for them what's best for them. The best moment in the film for me is when Jen realizes all her boys have grown up and have a mind of their own. It is now up to her to change her ways and discover that the best way to love them is to love them just the way they are.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sure as Yan can cook, Sylvia can act, and the movie is all her show. It
tackles a familiar subject, if you've seen Ang Lee's "Eat drink man
woman" (1994), about the impact of gay children on a traditional Asian
family, under a culinary sub-plot. A capsule summary would be something
like: a widowed restaurant owner, disturbed by her two older sons'
being gay, gets help from a not-so-secret admirer (and business
competitor) to bring in an attractive French exchange student in the
hope of getting the youngest son into a straight relationship.
The movie is set at the relaxing equatorial city-state of Singapore, with a generous supply of nice exotic street scenes, and goes down like a delightfully light soufflé. All the ingredients generation gap, family bond and value, being gay, cultural differences, middle-age romance are handled with airy lightness, even in grand finale culinary competition and family reconciliation.
Sylvia Chang, after "20, 30, 40", continues to play a now-single middle age woman, but this time more grass-root. That Chang handles the role with ease can almost be taken for granted, but it's really a pleasure to see her deliver "Singlish" (the unique spoken Singaporean English which is accented at all the wrong places) as if she had been brought up with it. Martin Yan, whose show was called "Wok With Yan" long before the current "Yan Can Cook", does surprisingly well portraying the always-around-to-lend-a-hand-nice-man role. French actress Melanie Laurent gives a little glimpse of Julie Delpy in her first couple of minutes, although Delpy is really inimitable.
Recommendation on how to watch this movie: ENJOY.
Hainan ji fan (2004), shown in the U.S. with the title Rice Rhapsody,
was written and directed by Kenneth Bi. It stars Sylvia Chang as Jen,
the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant in Singapore.
Jen's professional life is going well, but she is depressed because her two older sons are gay, and she believes her youngest son may be gay as well. The script introduces an outside character--Sabine, played by Mélanie Laurent--who is a French foreign exchange student living with the family.
The plot is fairly predictable--the gay sons are very gay, the rival chef who wants to marry Jen is very persistent, and the exchange student is very sophisticated and very French. Unfortunately, the movie goes in several directions. When you read the promotional material, you expect Sabine's relationship to the family to be pivotal. Actually, her character sort of drifts in and out, making worldly and adorably French comments as she goes past. Without that plot anchor, the film more or less drifts aimlessly along to a Hollywood-style conclusion.
However, Singapore is--for me--an exotic and unknown location, and I enjoyed the fabulous views of the city. The cooking scenes were very well handled, and the acting was solid. Production values were high.
This film was shown as a 35mm print, which I think is the best way to see it. It will work on DVD, but not quite as well. It's not worth making a great effort to seek out the movie, but it's still worth seeing. (We saw it at the Rochester NY Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival.)
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 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.
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 the above, 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: * * *
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film had some potential. The premise was reasonably interesting -
a mother with two grown sons who are both gay wants grandchildren and
tries to ensure that her third son, a high school student, doesn't turn
out gay too. It's the kind of thing that might make for a good sitcom.
The main actors, Sylvia Chang and Martin Yan, carry the weight of the
story easily. Chang is an accomplished actor, and Yan has a good
comedic streak. The cinematography and editing are professional,
although one wonders why more wasn't made of Singapore as a background.
All we see are the old shophouses of Singapore's Chinatown and some
parkland; there are a lot more locations that could have given the film
more visual interest.
The real drags on the film were the script and a number of the actors. The sons were wooden. This was particularly unfortunate in the case of the youngest son, who played an important role in the film. The actor added nothing to the part. The son who worked for an airline was even worse. Mélanie Laurent, playing the girl from France who was going to change everything, had some excellent moments when she was being playful and teasing, but overall the script didn't give her enough opportunities.
The script allowed several good scenes, but generally it was poorly done. Where can one begin? The son is asked to show the girl, who has just arrived in Singapore, the nightlife for young people. He takes her to a cemetery. Yes, I know, he did not want to take her anywhere, but taking her to a cemetery is just silly and implausible. He is a total jerk for the entire movie, yet when the girl falls off her bicycle and is nearly hit by a car, the boy helps her up - and this is enough for her to invite him into her bed that night. Completely implausible, except perhaps if you take the racist view that French girls have no morals and give out sex as a reward, like candy to babies. She was a university student, he was still in high school, he had a repulsive personality with no interests except bicycle racing - it's inconceivable that she would fall for him. At one point she is found staring at water going down a drain; when asked, she remarks that it swirls in the opposite direction than in France. The point is that she is an educated, intelligent girl. Much later in the movie she confesses that she had lied about the water going down the drain. I don't know what the point of that was. (In fact, water does swirl in different directions above and below the equator.) The climax of the movie takes place in a cooking competition, where Martin Yan unaccountably lets the boy stand in for him to compete against his own mother. Silly, silly, stupid plotting. Almost the entire last hour of the film is filler; it should have been cut to about 15-20 minutes.
I enjoyed the first half hour or so and was expecting to be mildly entertained, but by the end, some of the acting and the stupidity piled upon stupidity of the script spoiled it all for me. I've given it a rating of only 3.
Rice Rhapsody may sound promising, in terms of making its ways to
several film festival, a pretty well known cast and crew (Taiwanese
award winning actress Sylvia Chang and world acclaimed celebrity chef
Martin Yan as the leading cast, with Jackie Chan as the executive
producer), and together with the help of Singapore Film Commission.
However, the serving of chicken rice turns out to be tasteless and
This is young director Kenneth Bi's debut feature, where Rice looks like a movie from the final year students in a movie school doing its final year project.
Sylvia and Martin were horribly miscast as the role of Jen, a chicken rice seller, and Kim Shui, a duck rice seller. Jen and Kim Shui are rivals in business, as their stall is just opposite one another. However, Kim Shui is a bachelor who admires Jen, and try all ways to woo Jen.
Jen no longer trusted any man after her husband left her 16 years ago. With her secret chicken rice recipe, she brought up her 3 sons. However, Daniel and Harry, who are the 1st and 2nd son, turns out to be gays. Jen placed her bet on Leo, the youngest son, who is barely a teenager around 15 and 16 years old, to breed an offspring for the family line. Fearing that Leo would follow his brothers footsteps, Jen and Kim Shui try all ways to match him with Sabine, a female French exchange student who is coming to Singapore.
A night of passion with Sabine and the loss of his bestfriend makes Leo discover his sexual orientation. Kim Shui comes out with new duck dishes that beats Jen's chicken rice business. Double pressure coming down together makes Jen loses hope on the people around her, except for Sabine, where Sabine teaches Jen that there are more things in life to look out for.
It just sounds like your typical family drama, where someone wants to go their way, while others are trying to pull the whole family together. In terms of being a family drama, Rice has achieved only about 50% of it. The main focus on the film is all about how Jen is trying to prevent Leo from becoming a gay, so as to pass down the family line.
Placing Sylvia Chang the role of a typical Singaporean housewife is a bad choice. Poor language usage of dialogues in the film worsen the whole movie. No matter how hard Sylvia try to speak like a Singaporean women, her American accent English simply pulls her effort down, making whatever she said sounds pretendous.
Placing Martin Yan as Kim Shui is the worst choice. His heavy American accent English do not sound like a typical Singaporean hawker who owns a duck rice stall at your neighbourhood Singaporean coffeeshop (and i do not mean Starbucks in American terms.) Instead of using Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Singapore style English in the film, perfect English were used instead, giving Singaporean audience a good laugh, where two non-Singaporean Chinese were chosen to play Singaporeans. It puts the audience into a big puzzle: is this an total English speaking Singapore production? The ending of the film lacks punch, where Leo and Jen participated in a cooking competition. No tense atmosphere, no grand showdown, just the love between a mother and her son. Apparently, wrong location was chosen for both the mother and the son to express their love for each other.
Though Rice was slapped with an M18 rating (which refers to not suitable for audience aged 18 and below) for discussing and glorifying homosexuality, Rice is not a gay drama. It looks into the love between a mother and her gay sons, her acceptance of homosexuality and how to strike a balance between her traditional values and homosexuality.
If more details could be put in and having Singaporean cast to play the role of Jen and Kim Shui, the chicken rice would taste much more better.
Aptly called 'Rice Rhapsody' in Australia, this comedy is not very
funny nor very satisfying. The basic plot is a single mother and
restaurant owner has raised three sons all by her lonesome. Two of them
are gay, and she fears the youngest may also be that way inclined. So,
she comes up with a plan to hook him up with a sexy French student
All in all, this film just doesn't work and the chemistry between Sabine and Leo doesn't gel. The film seems indecisive in which direction it wants to go, and the male lead is rather unpleasant throughout the whole movie. And, why the heck was one character called "Batman"? This is quite a lazy comment, but 90 or so minutes really dragged for me- especially towards the end.
**1/2 out of *****!
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