Friday, July 04, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Zero Pro Site—The Movable Feast

Master Fly Spirit’s food was sort of slow and reasonably local. Most of all, it was entirely traditional, making it difficult to replicate in these times. His daughter Chan Hsiao-wan is learning that the hard way. She had always planned to be an actress or a model, but she is falling back on the old family catering business after tasting the cold hard realities of showbiz in Chen Yu-hsun’s awkwardly titled Zero Pro Site: the Movable Feast (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Chan was always better at being cute than responsible, so she would be just the type to innocently co-sign on a deadbeat boyfriend’s loan. When he takes to the wind, two loan-sharks come to collect from her. Fleeing Taipei, she eventually reconnects with her stepmother, “Puffy” Ai-feng who is also evading debt collectors. Unfortunately, “Puffy” earned her new nickname when she sacrificed her savings and her late husband’s reputation in an ill-advised showdown with his faithless apprentice. However, Chan’s sunny personality and a few long forgotten traditional dishes start attracting customers to their greasy spoon.

Not surprisingly, Chan has been a poor steward of her father’s recipes, so she seeks help from a variety of sources, including his happily addled teacher Master Tiger Nose and the itinerant “Dr. Gourmet,” a.k.a. ex-con Yeh Ju-hai. However, just as things start to develop between her and Yeh, he jumps ship to assist his teacher, the gangster caterer Master Ghost Head. Even without Yeh’s help, Chan places her future hopes in a national catering competition, duly impressing the loan-sharks into kitchen service, as could only happen in romantic comedies. Yet, to truly cook in a traditional manner, she will have to fully engage with the past.

Yes, there is a lot of food in ZPS, as metaphors, comedic props, and a way to celebrate Taiwanese cultural identity. Yet, it only serves a limited courtship function. While the film certainly has a dash of romance it is more about familial legacies and finding one’s place in the world. Like Chan’s turtle-stuffed chickens, the film is also bursting at the seams with supporting characters, so if one is too goofy and outrageous for your tastes, just wait for a more understated type to come along.

As Chan, Kimi Hsia is relentlessly silly and sweet, without getting viewers’ nerves. She forges some respectable screen chemistry with Tony Yang, even though Dr. Gourmet largely vanishes during the second and third acts. Top-billed Lin Mei-hsiu initially mugs something fierce as Puffy Ai-feng, but she reins it in to some extent as the dramedy starts to develop. Although there is a lot of colorful wackiness going on, the film draws a lot of heart from its senior cast-members, such as the recently reunited old couple, who want Chan to cater their wedding in the manner they remember from their youth.

ZPS is fun, it is endearing—it really could have been ninety some minutes. Over two hours of food and nostalgia is starting to push it. Still, Chen ties up all his subplots fairly neatly. He might have more secondary characters than Around the World in Eighty Days, but he develops a rather high percentage of them. Frothy and pleasing, it delivers some potent wistfulness along with its liberal servings of food and scrappy underdog resiliency. Recommended for fans of generation-spanning culinary cinema, Zero Pro Site—The Moveable Feast screens tomorrow (7/5) at the Walter Reade Cinema, as part of this year’s NYAFF.