Netflix Files: Front Cover, Blind Date, The Search for General Tso

Front Cover

There are few enough Asian American stories being told in American media, fewer still involving romances, even fewer involving romances with Asian men, and yet fewer ones dealing with gay Asian men. So while Front Cover might not seem to be offering anything different in terms of basic romantic melodrama plot territory, it absolutely is. We’re getting the frameworks of a familiar story told from perspectives from which we don’t often enough listen.

Ryan is a Chinese American living in New York and working at a fashion magazine. He’s assigned to be the stylist for Ning, a hot up-and-coming actor in China, during his American press tour. One can guess what happens next: the two meet, clash, and eventually succumb to the growing attraction between them. It’s the details within this standard romcom plot that make Front Cover unique. Both Ryan and Ning struggle with their identity, and represent to the other their own internal struggles. We’re faced with serious questions and explorations of racial identity, the diaspora/diasporic racial identity, racism, micro and macro aggressions, homophobia, and what decisions people are forced to make just to survive in the face of it all.

The diehard romantic in me is a bit wistful at the bittersweet ending of the story, even as I realize it was probably for the best for Ryan in particular, and I understand Ning’s choice and the reasons he had for making it. What was most important for them both, and for the viewer, was the experience that they had together, and the growth in them both that it prompted. It’s vital that we keep listening and giving focus to the telling of these stories.

Blind Date

Ah, the zany French romantic comedy. Here we have the story of two introverts striking up a relationship through the thin wall separating their apartments. If you’re looking for realism or subtlety here, well, don’t. We’re talking sledgehammers taken to walls, buttons popping off of blouses, all that sort of wonderful nonsense. But it’s fun wonderful nonsense, and isn’t that what really matters?

Our stars are, fittingly enough for introverts, mostly unnamed through the movie. He’s a shut-in who lives and works entirely in his apartment, sending his only friend Artus out for supplies whenever he needs them. He demands silence and solitude, and has chased away all his prospective neighbors through a series of pranks that make the apartment appear haunted.

She’s an aspiring concert pianist. His attempts to frighten her away fail, and they soon settle into an uneasy truce, scheduling each day down to the second as to when either of them are allowed to perform activities that make noise. The wall between their homes is so thin that they are able to discuss details for the arrangement without ever having to meet face to face, and soon the conversation turns from said arrangement, to him critiquing her piano playing, to chatting, to friendship…and you can see where the movie goes from here.

So nothing new, but Blind Date is a well-done familiar, and I’m always especially here for stories of introverts falling in love. If you’d think maybe a story about introverts falling in love would be quiet or subtle, well, you’ll not find that here, but you will find a silly, fun little romcom.

The Search for General Tso

General Tso is a name I utter almost any time I place a Chinese takeout order, and yet it never occurred to me to wonder whether or not he was even a real person. Spoiler alert: he was. Spoiler alert: he didn’t have anything to do with the dish named after him.

The Search for General Tso tells the story of Taiwan-based chef Peng Chang-kuei, who was born in the Hunan province in China. When he invented the dish we know as General Tso’s chicken, he named it after famed Qing dynasty general Zuo Zongtang, because he was also famously from Hunan province. That’s all there is to the naming of the famous American* dish, but that’s not all there is to the story. The film traces its culinary development, chronicles its rise in popularity, covers tension and drama between chefs: all of that is there, but there’s more, and it’s the more that interested me the most.

*Because General Tso’s as we know it is indeed an American specialty, despite the original dish being somewhat different and invented in Taiwan. Just like the fortune cookie, General Tso’s is all but unknown in China. Here is where it flourishes, here is where it is inevitably remade and changed to best suit American tastes, here is where it is served in almost any shopping center where there is a Chinese restaurant to be found.

This phenomenon of how you can wander into just about any little Chinese corner restaurant in the country and expect to find almost the same menu is explored and even explained. There’s a growing movement to learn and understand where our food is coming from, and The Search for General Tso is a fascinating step in an often-overlooked aspect of that journey.