Overview: Director Ian Chaney takes viewers on a trip from around the world to find out where one of the most iconic Chinese* dishes originated. Sundance Selects, 71 min, Not Rated
Passive Stance: The Search for General Tso pits the assumed origin of a certain food against the culture that surrounds it. The initial visual direction of the film aims to please the imaginative palate of food-lovers, but then the movie veers somewhere that is not expected: into the historical cultural intolerant of American citizens (I refrain from using “Our” because that includes me). In its display of the American treatment of early Chinese immigrants, The Search for General Tso exhibits the same sort of necessary forced American self-examination found in recent narrative films (12 Years a Slave, Selma).
Quality: The filmmaking that constructs this surprising cultural documentary does not measure as successful as its approach. The construction, at times, is somewhat spastic and over-edited. But the central conceit is direct and to the point and the innovative approach to understanding a culture through a culinary lens recalls the recent incredible documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (which might also be the best documentary about food-as-art-and-craft ever made). The journey of the viewer is more than that of just finding out where this titular dish originated, it ends up being a lesson about a certain people and the hardships they have faced. It is a joy to watch individuals who believe that they were the initial creators of the dish and to hear the stories that explain why they believe themselves to be the inventors. The most interesting of these is a man who collects the menus from every Chinese restaurant he has ever visited. His passion for something so simple is inspiring.
Overall: The Search for Genral Tso offers more than its title suggests. Though its execution is somewhat lacking, the underlying idea prevails to provide a quality film that will leave you with something to ponder the next time you reach for the menu of your local establishment.