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Zone Pro Site: A feast for heart and stomach

Perhaps it was a mistake not to eat dinner before going to see the movie Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast. I squirmed and salivated as I watched dish after creative dish being prepared and served up in this highly entertaining (and funny) film by Director Chen Yu-hsun which opened in theaters on August 16th. (Scroll down for an interview with the director below.)

The movie follows a young woman named Chan Hsiao-wan (played by Kimi Hsia) who’s forced to move back home after she falls heavily in debt. Her wacky mother, who is also in debt, decides that their only hope is to participate in a national “ban doh” (or open-air catering) competition. Hsiao-wan’s deceased father was Master Fly Spirit, a famous chef (which in Taiwanese is pronounced similar to “Zone Pro Site”), and they’re hoping that his legacy of serving old-fashioned dishes made with heart will be enough to give them an edge.

But the duo are competing against Master Ghost Spirit and his fantastical dishes. Hsiao-wan gets help along the way from her love interest, a handsome young food doctor played by Yo Yang, who’s also being forced to help the other team. There is also a ragtag band of assistants in the competition, including two goofy gangsters who are extorting money from Hsiao-wan.

The movie climaxes in a parade of beautifully designed dishes, with a big serving of comedic action and a whole lot of heart. But will Hsiao-wan and her mother be able to learn the tricks of the trade to beat the masters at their own game? And what about Hsiao Wan’s chances with the food doctor? 

While some of the humor and plot twists require a deep understanding of Taiwanese culture, the movie will nevertheless appeal to a broad audience with universal themes connected to food, loss, and love. Audiences will find the performances endearing (especially Lin Mei-hsiu as Puffy, Hsiao-wan’s vivacious mother) and appreciate the heartfelt touches of the director (who also wrote the script).

What impressed me most is that the movie is capable of having broad appeal without overly pandering to the audience or shooting to the lowest common denominator. Even the slapstick jokes seem genuinely funny, whereas similar gags have flopped in other comedic cinematic attempts in recent memory in Taiwan.

A second viewing confirmed my initial positive response, and gave me a new appreciation for the movie’s wonderful score and artistic direction (with one particularly impressive scene in an underground tunnel with beautifully painted walls depicting the history of Taiwan’s ban doh culture). If you are interested in seeing the movie, it should be noted that it’s best consumed in ban doh style: with a raucous group of friends. Go see it while the movie is hot, and the theaters are packed!

Interview with Director / Screenwriter Chen Yu-hsun

Recently I caught up with the movie’s director / screenwriter, Chen Yu-hsun (陳玉勳)to find out more about the foods that were so instrumental to the plot, and the cultural backdrop provided by Taiwan’s “ban doh” or open-air banquet culture. You can hear the full interview with the director, plus listen to a guide for participating in a “ban doh” in the August 31st edition of Feast Meets West. 

Why did you want to create a movie based on Taiwan’s “ban doh” or open-air catering culture?

“Because, I… enjoy eating, and people think Taiwan has a lot of good food, but they usually only think of the well-known snack-foods and night markets. But I think there are other great parts of Taiwanese cuisine. But those traditions are not being passed a long, and I think it’s unfortunate. So I wanted to make a movie about ban doh or open-air banquets. And I wanted to incorporate a lot of culture and customs from the old days in Taiwan. I felt that if we did not do it, it would be a shame, because it’s really fascinating.”

How has “ban doh” culture changed through the years?

“In the old days, the chefs would show up at the ban doh with nothing; the host of the banquet would prepare all of the ingredients. Even all of the plates and the tables and chairs were brought over by the neighbors so that everyone could eat together. And when they were done, they’d wrap up the leftovers and give it to the neighbors who helped out. The chef didn’t get a salary, per se, but he’d get a nice cut of meat or something like that. In the past, it was all about helping people celebrate something, and people would contribute from their hearts. Everyone would come together to put on the banquet. But these days, people want things to be fast. You just make a phone call and the chef will suggest a menu, and then you pay him and you’re ready to put on a banquet. You don’t have to do anything; everything is done for you. I feel like the difference between society in the past and nowadays is that the feeling of warmth and hospitality (人情味) has gradually disappeared. And people’s sincerity has also disappeared. By “sincerity” I mean the host’s sincerity in wanting to treat everyone to a good meal, and the guests’ sincerity in congratulating the host, and the chef’s sincerity in wanting to create delicious dishes. It’s gradually disappeared.”

The foods have changed too… I like the scene where you show french fries being served. They would never have done that in the old days.

“Those old, down-home dishes are different from the ones served today. In the past, it was an agrarian society and there were more laborers. People were poorer, and there were fewer ingredients back then. Chefs would turn simple ingredients into delicious, sumptuous dishes with wonderful flavors. In the past, because there were more laborers, the dishes would be a little bit oilier, and the flavors richer. But in today’s society, people don’t get as much physical activity, so the dishes are not as rich. But there are more ingredients and cooking implements.”

What’s your favorite ban doh dish?

“I like “Buddha Jumping Over the Wall” (佛跳牆)! (laughs) A lot of people like it because it has a lot of ingredients, and the broth has been stewed for a long time, and it’s delicious. When I was little, I liked the cold dishes — the ones that would come out first. They used to be quite simple; usually there’d be sausages, thousand year eggs… and the better ones would have lobster or canned snails.

One of the most important members of your team was Maxx Xiao, the food designer. What was it like working with him to create the dishes for the movie?

“It was hard coming up with both the old-fashioned dishes and the creative new dishes. Neither of us was familiar with the old-fashioned dishes, so we had to find chefs who had made those dishes before, and get the information we needed to recreate them. But those dishes from the past are all quite simple — in terms of color, and presentation, there were a lot of stews and everything was a beige color. So we had to choose dishes that were slightly more visually appealing. Maxx spent a lot of time creating those old-fashioned dishes, because that’s not where our expertise lies.

“In terms of the more creative dishes, I had to use my imagination when writing the script. I had to come up with dishes that seemed really impressive, and things that people had never eaten before, which they would find surprising or hard to believe. So I discussed it a lot with Maxx, and we were still talking about it while preparing to shoot the film, to see if there was anything even more impressive or amazing that we could come up with. We were still thinking about it when we began shooting — it was very difficult and challenging, and we spent a lot of money. Since it was a ban doh, we had two or three scenes that involved a LOT of dishes. And for a banquet, you need to make enough food for dozens of tables of guests. But fortunately, Maxx has had a lot of experience shooting food commercials. I was worried that we’d have to spend a lot of time waiting for them to prepare the dishes, but as soon as the lighting was set up, the dishes were ready to serve. It all went very smoothly.”

Preparing all that food must have been like holding an actual ban doh!

“That’s right! We created a real ban doh. And after we were done filming we had so many leftover dishes… it would have been a shame to throw them away! (laughs) So Maxx would use them to create new dishes for all the people on set. So in addition to our boxed lunches and dinners, we had all this extra food that we could eat!”

One of the surprise dishes in the movie was the very uninspiring looking “Leftover Stew” (菜尾湯). Tell me the significance behind that dish. 

“People don’t often make this dish any more. We would eat it when we were little. Basically, it’s all the leftover dishes from a ban doh. They would pour them into a huge pot. But it’s not really that simple. The chef would have to balance out the flavors to create the soup, and he’d have to add other seasonings and ingredients to the mix in order to make a truly delicious Leftover Soup. And he’d give the soup to people to take home with them. Nobody really makes it anymore, it’s not easy to make. If you really want to make it, you have to make a lot of different dishes first with dozens and dozens, maybe more than a hundred different ingredients, in order to be able to create a real Leftover Soup.”

Even with so many unusual and even flamboyant dishes featured in the movie, one of the dishes that caught my attention was the very simple stir-fried tomato and eggs. Tell me a little bit about the significance of that dish. 

“It’s a very simple dish to make. Almost every family has its own variation. I chose it, because I was looking for a very common dish that would be able to express the strong feelings that people have among their family members — a familial love of sorts.”

It seems like many of the more touching moments in the movie have to do with the memories that are conjured up by food. What were you hoping to convey to the audience?

“The type of memories I wanted to talk about in the movie are the sorts of emotions that older people would remember when they ate those different dishes. For me… I don’t have the same experience (laughs) because I’ve never had those dishes before. But I’ve had similar experiences, like when we were little, that first package of instant noodles that I ate as a dry snack… to this day I can still remember that feeling. I still have a craving for those noodles, but you can’t buy them anymore. Sometimes when I smell a certain smell, I’ll think back to scenes like that from my childhood.”

What are you hoping audiences will take away from the movie?

“When I was writing the script and shooting the film, I was hoping that the movie would make people happy. I wanted to make a funny movie that would make people laugh. But later when we were done and we were editing the film, I had different feelings about it. I discovered that especially when it’s hot out, and people are having a tough time at work, and they have a lot of pressure in their lives, as soon as they step into the movie theater to watch this film, they forget all of their worries. You see all these wonderful foods, and so many funny things happen, and you have all of these emotions while sitting in this comfortable environment… it’s almost as though the movie has this healing effect on people. It makes people feel better. This is something I never imagined when we were making it. A lot of people have told me that watching this movie has made them so happy. People tell me that even after they got home they were still discussing the movie, and the family was harmonious and the parents were getting along (laughs)… it’s miraculous… I don’t know why.”

Zone Pro Site is currently playing in theaters across Taiwan. 

Categories: Arts and Culture

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