Rice Rhapsody (2004)

Written & directed by: Kenneth Bi
Producer: Rosa Li
Starring: Sylvia Chang, Martin Yan, Tan Le-Pham, Mélanie Laurent, Alvin Chiang, Craig Toh, Andy Mok & Maggie Q

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005:
Best New Director (Kenneth Bi)

Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2005:
Best Actress (Sylvia Chang)

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2004:
Best Actress (Sylvia Chang)
Best Original Film Score (Masahiro Kawasaki)

Having just re-opened her restaurant in Singapore, with the traditional dish Hainan Chicken Rice dish as its special, Jen (Sylvia Chang) mother of three boys, two of which are gay, worries about the development of her youngest, Leo (Tan Le-Pham). Afraid she won't be able to have any grandchildren, she conjures up a scheme together with long time rival, friend and admirer Tan Kim Chui (real life TV-chef Martin Yan) to bring in Sabine (Mélanie Laurent), a French foreign exchange student to strike up heterosexual love with Leo...

True to the Hong Kong cinema way of working, Kenneth Bi (1*) has logged credits as composer (The Longest Summer), editor, actor, assistant director (The Runaway Pistol, where he also had story credit) but this Singapore-Hong Kong co-production, Rice Rhapsody, got to be his, what turned out to be, award winning debut. With executive producer Jackie Chan on board to lend a hand to the new talent, that's one of the biggest joys to take away from this production, that good ol' JC is looking at other profile's futures. Hope he doesn't consider Mr. Kenneth Bi as a filled up, fresh well of directorial creativity because Rice Rhapsody does look like a lot but lacks a bunch.

Directed assuredly and shot by Lam Wah-Chuen (2*), there's nothing wrong to give a new kid some high end toys and sparkling locations to play with, a benefactor for Bi's vision. Suitably natural all throughout, where Rice Rhapsody mostly falls is in making noble intentions come to life. There's certainly quite a controversial message, at least partially, on display that speaks of following your values, not traditional values (Life first, things second is a key line of dialogue in the film). Sylvia Chang's Jen does represent the notion that you can't take Chinese traditional family values lightly and maybe she's not that offside in her strife for future blood existence but Bi does preach that individuality will equal living up to your own imprinted values by definition. However you handle your continuing existence should be an individual or even egotistical choice. It means the collapse of the Chinese family if you want it to be but Bi certainly isn't condemning any choice left, right, down or up.

With prime focus being on the not totally unshaped Leo, Bi introduces Mélanie Laurent as the glowing angel of the film and despite the quite fulfilling breakdown above, begins his first steps intro trouble. Shaping Sabine as a free flying bird filled with spirituality and righteousness produces an at times annoying and unfelt portrayal with attempts at the obvious depths that takes flight deep into pretentiousness instead. Indeed there is still a central focus to be simple about Jen coming to terms with life spiraling clock- or counterclockwise (obvious symbolism of this takes place in the film. See if you can spot it...) but the spirituality never means anything more beyond its simple essence and Bi furthermore goes on to produce merely types on screen. Undeveloped, unseen and even phony, the remainder of the sons in different life stages fails to aid the common story and their connection to it. It's scripted reality hoping to be real, sincere, character building and set itself up as a theme park of opportunities. When later turning more sad, Bi's filmmaking shift is noticeable but painfully revealing in the way he refuses to be small (very evident in the music choices courtesy of late composer Masahiro Kawasaki).

You do have Sylvia Chang at center who remains very real and manages to stay away from too many of the ill choices here. She is a mother in need to travel beyond her daily structure that is another sign of the rightful and wrongful imprint we have on our lives. Working with Mélanie Laurent, who appears in less out there-mode, whenever interacting with Chang, director Bi's small scale, simple and sincere intentions grow immensely when dealing with the seasoned actress. Martin Yan travel much alongside Chang but here's a character with an all too much simple agenda, drifting so much in and out of the movie that we again find it difficult to connect to more than the character outline. It's lacking slightly and that's a shame as Yan is infectious whenever on screen.

If anything, Rice Rhapsody needed to be even smaller to rank as more than a semi-decent start for new filmmaker Kenneth Bi. Being a fan of dramas juggling premises easily picked up upon but with a directorial touch that reaches inside, Bi certainly has many, many correct instincts for the material, realized with some amounts of pretentiousness but mostly a lack of skill of turning the material into something that breathes of life on a realistic scale. Also perhaps more importantly, cinematically. It's a concept that could've stayed at that but there's no reason to be a sour grape when Kenneth Bi does possess something. I wait for the day when he truly breaks out, preferably when dealing with the people on the ground once more.

The DVD:

Joy Sales presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 approximately. Print has no damage and is transferred in a loving way, bringing the vivid colours to life with sufficient sharpness to boot.

The mixed language track (primarily Mandarin and English with some French) in Dolby Digital 5.1 sounds crystal clear and has some excellent front stage effects at select points. Music comes off well too. The same soundtrack in DTS 5.1 is also included.

The English subtitles appears for all dialogue, including English but despite no option to have it play only for the Chinese language scenes, the translation is free of obvious faults. The spoken vs. translated dialogue differ a little at times but it isn't a distracting issue. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.

A 2nd disc of special features is included available, with most of the added material residing in the Rice Rhapsody - Supplement section. Clicking it will automatically get you to Endorsement From Jackie Chan, a 49 second interview where he very briefly talks about his desire to find new talent. Speaking in English, subtitle options are the same as the feature film so Joy Sales have scored some points already. Much of the subsequent extras are in English though but as with the movie, they are helpful at times when trying to get through some thicker accents.

We're then suitably lead into literally a menu system with choices ranging from A to D. Behind A we find The Making Of Rice Rhapsody (23 minutes, 55 seconds). The fairly substantial length doesn't mean it's more than your usual mix of interviews, movie clips and behind the scenes footage. I did enjoy seeing some lighthearted footage on set with Martin Yan and glimpses of Sylvia's preparation for the cooking scenes.

(Kenneth Bi interview and Sylvia Chang during her prep for the film)

Under the B-selection, there is a Photo Gallery (30 stills) in a way too small viewing window. C means Kenneth Bi gets a chance to talk in a 3 minute, 49 second interview. Taken from the same session as the making of and prompted with on-screen questions, little new or even exciting material appears here that isn't already covered in the mentioned making of. Finally D consists of Chinese language biographies and accompanying interviews for actors Sylvia Chang (5 minutes, 33 seconds), Martin Yan (1 minute, 17 seconds) Tan Le-Pham (2 minutes, 10 seconds), Mélanie Laurent (3 minutes, 28 seconds), Alvin Chiang (2 minutes, 5 seconds), Craig Toh (1 minute, 42 seconds) and Maggie Q (1 minute, 23 seconds). Andy Mok is the sole subject not covered via an interview as well.

Following the same format as the Kenneth Bi interview, material gets recycled from the making of and even when fresh statements appear, brief talk of new acting experiences, shooting in Singapore and characters discussion occupy these programs, without much substance being put forth. EPK material obviously. Back outside the Rice Rhapsody - Supplement section again, there are trailers for the film and Appleseed and then the most substantial yet totally unrelated extra, a 45 minutes, 8 second video called Turn Left Turn Right. Whether or not this TV-production has any connection to the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai movie of the same name I can't say and there are no English subtitles provided either.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Kenneth is actually the son of famous actress Ivy Ling Po, much known for her work in Shaw Brother's movies such as Love Eterne and The 14 Amazons, and actor/director Chin Han, who had directed Sylvia Chang in 1980's Imperious Princess. Ivy and Chin also has cameo appearances in Rice Rhapsody.

(2) SPL, Made In Hong Kong, Juliet In Love and the guy who did pretty much everything aside from being the director of The Runaway Pistol.