The Taste of Pho: Culinary Cinema
By Kavita Masthoff
Warsaw doesn’t evoke feelings of multiethnicity. Nonetheless, it has a vibrant Vietnamese community, which is one of the largest minority ethnic groups in the city. Today, Warsaw is transforming into a melting pot of cultures and that is what Mariko Bobrik, a Japanese director settled in Poland, dissects so beautifully and charmingly in The Taste of Pho (2019).
The focus of this Polish-Vietnamese film is on the large Vietnamese community residing in Warsaw. The name of the film could mislead a few to believe that they will embark on a gastronomic journey, but The Taste of Pho is not about food. Rather, the iconic Vietnamese dish represents a connection to the past, and embracing the future, and family love. The movie hopes to stimulate emotions and Mariko Bobrik wholeheartedly succeeds with this charming and thought-provoking drama.
Long (Thang Long Do) works in an unassuming Vietnamese eatery and is a master creator of Pho. He has loyal customers, who throng the eatery to savor this delicacy of beef and noodles. Long adheres to a strict daily routine and the repetitive actions of ironing his daughter’s pleated skirt and preparing her lunchbox, filled with Vietnamese food, give him solace.
Maya (Lena Nguyen), the 10-year-old daughter, is battling the void left by the demise of her Polish mother. She would rather eat Polish food than the Vietnamese fare her father gives her each day for school. While Maya loves her father, she has issues revealing her feelings and letting go of the past. She worries that her father will forget her mother and shift his attention to the sultry neighbor played by Aleksandra Domanska. This prompts her to spy on the neighbor and adds a fun element to the movie. Long, on the other hand, is too steeped in his problems and doesn’t notice the turmoil brewing in his daughter. The owner of the eatery decides to relocate to Vietnam and sells his business to a Polish man, who converts it to a sushi restaurant.
Long is pulled between his Vietnamese roots and his adopted country’s culture. Bobrik uses unobstrusive hints to show that Long was better able to cope with this mishmash of identity while his wife was alive and now, he is clinging to the past that is long gone but it is his escape, a safe haven. Long still believes that girls wear pleated skirts to school (like in Vietnam) and has no idea that Maya changes into a pair of jeans the moment she turns the corner. He prefers to get things repaired instead of wasting money on buying new stuff unless spare parts are not available, like what happens to his decrepit washing machine.
As Long struggles to learn how to make sushi and yearns for the old days of Pho, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. The movie gradually reveals how Long adapts and resolves the issues plaguing his family.
The Taste of Pho is Bobrik’s first directorial venture. She ensures that the story is not overdramatized. Instead, it has a discerning storytelling touch to it. Viewers see rather than being told. Bobrik exquisitely uses objects to portray protagonists and their feelings and emotions. The warmly-lit interiors of the house convey the warmth of feelings and closeness even though the father and daughter relationship is troubled.
Instead of making it region-specific, Bobrik ensures that the film has a universal perspective so that viewers can identify with family ties and alienation, and routine of everyday life. The Taste of Pho takes viewers on a heartwarming journey of a family in its quest to find inner bliss and contentment.
In the end, The Taste of Pho beautifully showcases the ramifications of migration and how the older generation struggles with changing culture while the younger generation effortlessly embraces and slips into the culture of the country they are born in. The film score by Aki Takase does justice to the film with its enjoyable rhythm.
The Taste of Pho is being screened at Kala Academy (C53) at 18:00 on 19 January 2021.