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The Search for General Tso (2015)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE SEARCH FOR GENERAL TSO (2015)

Documentary Feature

Directed By: Ian Cheney

The Short Version

Admit it: you have wondered who General Tso was and why you’re eating his chicken.

Sure, you could look it up with a search engine, but what fun is that?

If The Search for General Tso is anything, it’s a fun road trip with a lot of cool side stops.

The depth comes from the context; each little story builds up into something greater than the sum.

The Search for General Tso is a culinary and cultural adventure worth taking the time for.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PEPPER JACK.

Cheese is just about the only thing that one never sees paired with Chinese food, but the combination of smoothness and pepper captures the spirit of General Tso’s Chicken well enough.


Pairs Well With...

GENERAL TSO'S LIQUOR.

No, I am not making that up.  No, it didn’t exist during General Tso’s lifetime, either.

“Did he love chicken?  We don’t know.  No one knows.”


Ah, Chinese food.  It’s as American as apple pie.

Wait; what?

Let’s be honest with ourselves: the majority of what most North Americans know as “Chinese food” would be unrecognizable as such to people actually living in China.  (There is, in fact, a hilarious scene in the very film being discussed wherein residents of China are shown pictures of General Tso’s Cicken and don’t even recognize it as being chicken, much less “Chinese.”  But hold that thought.)  This is because for the past century and a half plus, Chinese restaurateurs have made themselves experts in taking old world cooking styles and adapting them to satisfy the tastes of North American diners, which in turn has made Chinese food the most popular “ethnic” dining choice around, with the on-again-off-again exception of pizza, depending on the neighborhood and occasion.

So how did an ethnic cooking style representing 1% or less of the actual population become so popular, and who the heck is this General Tso guy whose chicken is a highlight of just about every take out menu there is?  Those are two of many questions that filmmaker Ian Cheney and company seek to answer with The Search for General Tso.

The Search for General Tso is the type of documentary that serves to remind audiences why it can be way more fun – and enlightening – to watch a movie than to just take a quick hop over to Google or (icy shudder) Wikipedia and be done with it.  The Search for General Tso is less a cut-and-dried hunt for an answer than it is an adventurous conversation with a really smart friend who likes to go on a lot of remarkably relevant and highly interesting tangents.

What kind of interesting tangents?  By the end of the first act, the audience has already figured who General Tso was; they’ve even seen his house and met one of his descendants.  But before that, there’s a stop to look at the fine art of menu photography, which in turn makes it easier to show the many faces of General Tso’s Chicken to the people of Hunan and get blank and/or disbelieving looks in response.  (One person even questions the fact that it’s really chicken.)  In between those two moments, there’s a visit the guy who owns the world’s largest Chinese takeout menu collection.  And between the time when the audience gets introduced to General Tso and the big third act reveal of just where and when his Chicken first hit the scene (if you haven’t cheated – please don’t – the answer will probably surprise you), there’s been a whirlwind tour of about a zillion American Chinese restaurants from Arizona to San Francisco to Missouri to New York, along with the origin stories of a few other “traditional” Chinese dishes (Chop Suey and Cashew Chicken, anyone?) and an encapsulated history of the Chinese immigrant experience in America from the Gold Rush to the present. 

So yeah; there’s way more to The Search for General Tso than just the search for General Tso… or his Chicken.

For some viewers, the whirlwind might be frustrating and the narrative’s surface attention span might seem short (rarely are more than two consecutive minutes spent at the same location), but there’s method to this documentary’s madness, and I for one approve.  The conversational style keeps things flowing, and the fact that many of the film’s interviews involve family pairs prevent The Search for General Tso from ever dropping into lecture territory.  This is a neat and important trick, considering the number of lessons being delivered during the course of this relatively short seventy-odd minute film, especially when one realizes how many major narratives all of the vignettes are supporting.  Rambling?  Hardly; this is a very well-woven collection of stories that add up to a trilogy of tales that are greater than the sum of their parts.  Not to mention entertaining.

And hey, how about that snappy music?

Bottom line, whether or not you are in fact a fan of General Tso’s Chicken (though if you’re not, I can only hope that you’re a vegetarian), there a lot to enjoy about The Search for General Tso.  Indeed, the film has itself been crafted in the spirit of the modern dish that has become the “exotic” standard bearer of American comfort food: a quick, comfortably presented documentary with sweetness, flavor, and zing.

And it’s a lot tastier than a quick trip to Wikipedia.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2015


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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