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MARIKO BOBRIK: THE TASTE OF PHO (2019) - KINO POLSKA

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LENA NGUYEN IN THE TASTE OF PHO

Vietnamese father and daughter in Warsaw living with big and small changes

This filmmaker, an Asian transplant in Warsaw, perhaps inspired by Japanese greats like Ozu, works as a miniaturist, in little touches, keeping things going with themes: a broken washing machine; a pleated skirt and an exotic school lunch a ten-year-old half-Vietnamese girl going to Polish school doesn't want; a pretty blond Polish girl in the apartment across the courtyard, viewed with binoculars; changes in the restaurant where the father is a cook. Mariko Bobrik is a filmmaker born in Fukuoka, Japan who studied filmmaking in Łódź and has stayed on in Poland. For her first feature as a director, she has chosen to focus on Vietnamese, who make up the largest Asian population in Poland.

On a larger scale, this movie is about accommodation, the father and daughter to each other; to living without their wife and mother, who has passed away. There is an Asian-style lighted shrine to her in their apartment. It's the most beautiful thing in the film. Long (Thang Long Do) lights a stick of incense in it every day. This is important to his ten-year-old daughter Maja (Lena Nguyen). Maja is, of course, more assimilated than Long. She speaks Polish as a native. Except for her appearance, she totally fits in. But Long is assimilated too.

However, he has a lot to deal with. The owner of the Vietnamese restaurant where he is the chef retires back to Vietnam and sells the restaurant to a Polish businessman. He keeps on Long, but gives the restaurant a total makeover to a very spiffy sushi - Thai food place. That's right, sushi - Thai. This is what the public wants. Never mind that people loved Long's hot noodle Pho in the wintertime. Long is sent to a school where everybody is learning to make sushi. The new owner fires the two younger Vietnamese employees who don't speak Polish and hires Satyajit (Vibhu Sharma) and Sandip (Vinay Gangvani) because they speak Polish. Well, they're Asian.

Raja is grieving for her lost mother and her fear is that her father is forgetting her and turning to the cute blond across the way (Aleksandra Domańska), whom he does pursue one evening. She also has to admit to him that she is throwing out his Vietnamese pastries that he gives her for school lunch, and switches the pleated plaid skirt he irons for her every morning for the jeans all the girls wear now. She complains that they eat rice much more than they did when her mother was alive.

The beauty of this movie is its subtlety, though it's not that subtle. It's pretty obvious that Long's attempt to repair their old broken, out of date, unrepairable washing machine and making them hand wash their clothes is clinging to the past, the lost past of his Vietnamese youth, the closer past of when his wife was alive and he worked in a Vietnamese restaurant where his Pho was the most popular item.

Long seems totally inexpressive at first, but it comes to be clear that's him coping. He's not shut down; he simply has an equitable disposition. And he and Raja cope very well with each other. It seems something of a miracle that Long remains the chef of this fancy transformed sushi - Thai restaurant. Now he has taught Satyajit and Sandip to make Pho and he's grinding out sushi. But it's working. He has resisted the temptation when all these restaurant transformations hit him to go back to Vietnam. This is home now. And above all, it's home for his daughter, the home that links her to her mother. His announcement to Raja that he can make any kind of cuisine is a triumph: pho is a beautiful thing, but it's not his whole identity. He has acquired the survivor's spirit of transformation.

The color scheme is subtle and low key. The score by Japanese jazz pianist and composer Aki Takase is low key. The whole film is low key. Sometimes it feels repressed: when there is a group of Polish children playing with Raja at her home one long afternoon, suddenly things seem to burst with a humor and energy missing before. The Taste of Pho settles for charm and cuteness at the end. But the relationship of Raja and Long feels real.

The Taste of Pho, 84 mins., debuted at San Sebastián Sept. 23, 2019, showing at some other international festivals including Piec Smaków and Osaka. Screened for this review as part of the seven-film virtual Brooklyn Academy of Music Apr. 30-May 6, 2021 Kino Polska series.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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