SSIFF review: The Taste of Pho (Mariko Bobrik)

We live in Europe, not in Vietnam. We don’t eat rice every day.” A portrait of a cultural and generational divide, Japanese director Mariko Bobrik’s debut feature The Taste of Pho uses a father-daughter relationship to project its ideas. The line is their relationship in a nutshell. She a pre-teen born of a Polish mother and a Vietnamese father, and in everything but looks fully Polish. He the father who still very much hangs on to the culture of his motherland. She doesn’t understand his heritage, and he doesn’t want to fully let go of it. This gentle film presents itself as unassuming, but quietly imparts lessons of tolerance and acceptance of our differences, and packs some emotional punches near the end.

Long (Thang Long Do) is a cook in a Vietnamese restaurant in Warsaw, Poland. He lives with his young daughter, the fruit of a marriage to a Polish woman that was cut short by her death. While well-integrated and fluent in Polish, Long still clings to the traditions of his native country, perhaps in part as a reaction to losing his wife. Maja (a charming Lena Nguyen, a true find), his daughter, is as Polish as can be and quietly rebels against Long’s Vietnamese traditions. She throws away the school lunches her father makes for her, and ditches the pleated skirt he irons for her to replace it with jeans. She doesn’t want to be Vietnamese, she wants to be Polish like her classmates.

Hien (Gia Khai Ton), the owner of the restaurant, sells the place because he and his wife Cuc (Thi Thanh Minh Tran) are going back to Vietnam. Long remains the chef under the new Polish ownership, even after this quickly turns the place into a sushi bar/Thai restaurant. “It’s all Asian, isn’t it?” is the ignorant assumption the new owner makes to Long as he announces his plans. Still, Long ploughs on as his Vietnamese kitchen staff is replaced by an Indian one (because the latter speaks Polish) and the disinterest of the new (Polish, of course) waitresses in his dishes is palpable. More trouble brews at home when the washing machine breaks down and Long insists on repairing it himself, leaving the exasperated Maja to wash her own clothes by hand until his project is done. Vietnamese stoicism versus Polish convenience thinking brings crisis to Long and Maja’s relationship. And a young, blonde neighbor also doesn’t help to bring Maja, still working through the death of her mom, any peace of mind…

Long’s struggle of being split between two cultures and how that influences his relationships, most notably his most important one, is the core of this film, and Bobrik using two generations is a deft way to show the differences. Although her last name suggests otherwise, Bobrik is Japanese. She studied film in the Polish city of Lodz, so she experienced first-hand what Long is going through, and is in a mixed-race relationship herself; we will be interviewing her later this week to ask her about these influences. But it is clear that her understanding of the subject matter runs deep, and it lends authenticity to the story. She is helped by the strong chemistry between her two principal actors who believably create a strained but still loving family relationship.

One would perhaps expect a film like this, dealing with immigrants in the (Eastern) Europe of today, to be more preoccupied with the racism that is on the rise throughout the continent. But The Taste of Pho keeps this subject mainly on the sidelines, only rearing its head in ignorant remarks and cultural misunderstandings that lack any true malice. The film perhaps chooses to brush this over, but it seems it is simply more interested in what being in between cultures does to a person’s state of mind and how they stand in the world, moreso than how others look at them.

The interesting thing to look at, in a meta sort of way, is what a director from a different culture brings into a Polish film. And Bobrik shares a light touch we would normally perhaps find in a Hirokazu Kore-eda or Ryusuke Hamaguchi film, a non-sentimental and sweet tone whilst dealing with a serious subject, a melodrama without the melodrama. The Taste of Pho perhaps could have done with a little more conflict and drama, but Bobrik delivers a pleasing debut that shines a light on immigration problems from a different angle than most other films, and a perspective that is very welcome.