Of Food and Film at TIFF16

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By Diana Cheng

I just came back home from the Toronto International Film Festival. Of the eight features I had watched, there are two that stirred up some ripples in me. No, not in terms of cinematic elements, but food, or the lack of. Here are some of my thoughts.

Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion

Esteemed English director Terence Davies can be regarded as a literary filmmaker. His previous works include the adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth (2000), Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea (2011), and last year’s Sunset Song, a cinematic rendition of Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s work.

A Quiet Passion is Davies’ newest film. It is a biopic of the reclusive 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson. Davies wrote the screenplay himself. During the Q & A after the screening, we learned that he had done much research, reading up on Dickinson’s biographies for the production. The cast include Cynthia Nixon as the posthumously renowned poet and Jennifer Ehle, playing her supportive younger sister Lavinia.

Now, I’m perplexed about one thing. I understand Emily Dickinson was well known as an excellent baker. Her Rye and Indian round bread won second prize at the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show; mind you, Lavinia was one of the judges. Nevertheless, we read about how Emily had often sent her own baked goods as gifts to family, friends, and local children.
Her poem, ‘The Things that can never come back, are several’, was first composed on the back of a friend’s recipe for Coconut Cake. Dickinson scholar Nelly Lambert writes:

In fact, many of her poems refer to cooking in some way. Dickinson critic
Vivian Pollak has done the math: ‘In all, slightly more than 10 percent of
Dickinson’s poems employ images of food and drink,’ she writes.

How many in all? Nearly 1,800. So, that leads to my query about the film A Quiet Passion. In that supposedly a biopic of Emily Dickinson, why is it that we don’t see one single scene of her doing her favorite thing: baking, cooking, or any action relating to food?

Director Terence Davies’ frame of Dickinson is a rebel with a cause, a progressive voice against the social constraints of the time. That part I can appreciate. In the film, we see Dickinson sharp with her words and arguments, a bold fighter against the confinements of social mores and restrictions. However, I don’t believe there is any problem with a progressive feminist loving to bake too. Surely being a recluse, poet, intellectual, and astute observer and commenter of societal wrongs did not preclude enjoying herself in the kitchen, immersed in another form of creativity.

Does Dickinson’s deep and dark poetic repertoire make no room for a little edible joie la vie? Or, could this be director Davies’ view that portraying her working in the kitchen, baking, cooking, or writing down recipes would be too domestic and feminine a chore, thus weakening the image of a feminist rebel? If the absence of such scenes is to avoid associating with the idea that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’, keeping her out of it would only give strength and silent endorsement to the misguided notion. The kitchen, or food preparation, or eating heartily should never be an issue.

Koreeda Hirokazu’s After the Storm and more

In contrast, in Koreeda Hirokazu’s newest film After the Storm, we see food is a mainstay, no matter how tumultuous the circumstance his characters are in. Indeed, the Cannes Film Festival winning Japanese director loves to show his actors preparing meals, indulging in food.

Here’s the story in After the Storm. Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) used to be an award-winning author. But for years he has not produced any more works. Divorced from his wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and sorely missing his 9 year-old son Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyo), Ryota is laden with gambling debts and months behind in his child support payments. The once successful writer is now at the lowest point in his life. During one stormy night when a fierce typhoon hits, coincidentally he, his wife and son all happen to be present in his mother Yoshiko’s (Kiki Kilin) small unit in a housing project. They inevitably have to stay overnight under one roof to wait for the storm to pass.

The unexpected reunion, though awkward, is probably gratifying for every one of them. The broken, dysfunctional family has got a chance to reunite, ex-husband and wife get to talk, Grandma can interact with grandson Shingo, who gets to stay under one roof with all the people he loves. Koreeda is, alas, a realist. Life is full of disappointments. However close they have come to bonding once again, the moment is short-lived. But the reminiscence and dynamics of the small family’s once intimate relationship regurgitates enough to spark off a renewal for Ryota.

How does food come into play? At the beginning of the film, we see the unkempt Ryota stop by a noodle place to eat on his own. Interesting to note that these ‘fast food’ Japanese eateries do not offer seats. Patrons hold their bowl of noodles, slurp them up quickly, all while standing up. In no time, the meal is done and they are on their way.

But during the impromptu reunion in his mother’s cramped unit on the night of the storm, we see food is the ingredient that warms and binds. Once knowing they would have to stay in her home for the night to wait out the storm, Yoshiko quickly goes to the fridge and gets anything that she can find to prepare a good meal for all of them. She cooks noodles, with whatever ingredients she has on hand, and opens a new jar of pickled delicacy she has saved up so they can enjoy together. Unlike eating on-the-go, that night, Ryota can sit down with his family once again and eat a proper meal.

Food is the sustenance not just for the physical body, but a crucial ingredient in bonding relationships. Director Koreeda is unabashed in shooting his characters close-up eating. Those who have seen his previous film Our Little Sister (2015) would have been gratified sumptuously, not that the food needs to be elaborate.

Screened at TIFF last year, Our Little Sister (2015) is about three adult sisters discovering a much younger step-sister after their estranged father’s death. Touched by her calm maturity and youthfulness, they welcome her into their home to live with them.

To prepare the four actors for their roles as sisters and get them to bond with each other, Koreeda gathered them the day before in the house where the shoot would take place and had them cook and eat together. Koreeda sure knew how bonding took place.

At the beginning of the film, a scene where two of the sisters traveling on the train to the funeral of their estranged father, we see them each hold a bento box, savouring what looks like a delicious lunch, sharing their thoughts. Koreeda must have known too that eating is a natural form of stage business for actors while they talk to each other.

Often in the film, we see the sisters cook and prepare meals together, their relationship grow through these activities. There are shots of frying tempuras, boiling noodles, and in one scene where a rare talk with their estranged mother takes place, the camera closes up on the profile of one sister as she holds up a large piece of steamed bun with her chopsticks, lifting it high for us all to see, then slowly pushing it into her wide-opened mouth. In an interview at Cannes Film Festival, one of the actors said that they had gained weight while shooting the film; an occupational hazard working under Koreeda?

Is this a cultural thing? The meaning and metaphor of food in films sounds like a wonderful idea for a research paper, or maybe even a dissertation. I’ll just let the foodies dig into that subject. As a TIFF goer, these are just my observations while watching the films on an empty stomach.


[1] [http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2011/10/20/141554113/a-coconut-cake-from-emily-dickinson-reclusive-poet-passionate-baker]

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Diana Cheng’s alter ego is Arti of  Ripple Effects in the blogosphere.