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The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (Chen Weijun, 2008)


     Size apparently still matters, at least in China. That’s the prevailing message in Chen Weijun’s culturally alert culinary documentary The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World. Focusing on Hunan Province’s West Lake Restaurant, which happens to be the world’s largest, the film provides yet another example of the nation’s burgeoning capitalist tendencies. Palatial, ostensibly traditional, and more than a little gaudy, this eatery can boggle the mind with figures alone. It has five kitchens, a staff of that numbers almost one thousand (including three hunded chefs), and a total capacity for five thousand simultaneous diners. Chen’s documentary finds its most interesting things to say, though, once it gets over its size obsession and starts examining the people and values behind the restaurant’s operations.


     Biggest Chinese Restaurant reports that capitalism has irrevocably altered the face of China as if it were novel to state such a thing. “Today everyone is their own emperor”, general manager Xiao says while explaining that the VIP room once reserved for royalty now services anyone willing to pay for the privilege of eating there. Everywhere in the documentary, examples of culture and commerce coexisting are present. The film starts with a staff rally that recalls the Wal-Mart cheer. Stage shows in the dining areas feature both traditional folk performances and advertisements for the restaurant’s dishes. Every dish has a symbolism-laden story behind it that justifies its presence at a given event... and its high price. The country seems to be in the grip of a newfound obsession with money. Even traditional celebrations now have become an excuse to spend or give lavishly. Red envelopes, filled with “lucky money”, are exchanged constantly. This new focus on free enterprise seems to be taking its toll on family life, however. Young girls are separated from their parents to work far from home. One waitress states that she hasn’t seen her husband for two years, since he is employed in another town. Most of West Lake’s staff live in dorms, with their coworkers, instead of their families. While this sort of thing might have been status quo in China for decades, the continued presence of such sacrifices calls into question what kind of freedoms are being won in the country.


     All of this hustle and bustle is overseen by Qin, the restaurant’s hard-working and pragmatic owner. She drinks more than she’d rather to please her customers, pledges support to the Communist party to protect her workers, and trudges to the top of a mountain to find spring water that might improve West Lake’s weak tofu sales. A self-made woman in every respect, she has amassed a personal fortune of about $5 million in the first three years of West Lake’s operations. Attributing her stubbornness and desire to succeed to her abusive husband and childhood poverty, she emerges as the film’s key figure. Just when the presence of Qin and Xiao, the restaurant’s general manager, seem to present a simplistic portrait of female empowerment, though, Chen opts to focus on a poor, young waitress at West Lake who has foregone her own education to support her sister’s efforts to become a doctor. She’s pointedly contrasted, then, with Qin’s spoiled daughter, who admittedly has no skills to speak of, and has never had a job, yet lives quite well. The state of the nation, it seems, resists generalities and somewhat justifies the country’s overriding financial concerns.


     The biggest problem with The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World is that it clearly has not been created with Chinese audiences in mind. It explains too many things that would be common knowledge in China. When it focuses on the customs of a longevity banquet, a wedding party, and a baby shower, it flags considerably. These passages feature less of Qin’s charismatic presence, and instead offer bland cultural information that could be gleaned from any number of sources. Just as distressing is the fact that it’s only on rare occasions that Chen manages to offer any visceral impression of the size of the restaurant or the quality of its cuisine. Then again, since existing examples of the latter involve showing chefs ripping the beating heart out of a live duck, and a timed competition in which snakes and fish are cut up, so they can be served while still squirming on the plate, perhaps this is for the best.


     What is fortunate is that Biggest Chinese Restaurant’s final passage is also probably its most well-organized. When the restaurant finds itself understaffed for a celebration that turned out to be much larger than anticipated, the audience finally gets a real sense of the administration of running an operation of this size. Issues such as high turnover and insufficient food orders are tackled by the management, providing a bit of logistical insight. In general, though, this film remains interesting without being particularly enlightening. Taken as a whole, it’s as trivial as anything in the Guiness Book of World Records, which officially cites West Lake as the world’s largest eating establishment. If Chen hasn’t managed to make a movie as newsworthy as he might have hoped, though, at least he’s presented this portrait of a unique place in a thoroughly approachable manner.



Jeremy Heilman