Social Commentary Via the Kitchen

TO a remarkable extent, today's Asian American filmmakers are conveying their messages through movies and videos that focus on food. Recent months have brought ``The Wedding Banquet'' and ``Combination Platter,'' which center on culinary affairs right from their titles. ``The Joy Luck Club'' also had a healthy interest in eating.

But no recent production has gotten more mileage out of food than ``Anatomy of a Springroll,'' an engaging look at Vietnamese culture as experienced and remembered by Paul Kwan, a Chinese man who grew up in Vietnam and now lives in San Francisco, where he wrote and directed the video with partner Arnold Iger, a Brooklyn native. At once an informative documentary and a highly personal voyage into Kwan's personal and cultural past, it's worth a look by anyone who speaks the international language of cuisine. (It airs nationally on most PBS stations Sunday night).

``Anatomy of a Springroll'' announces its main themes in Kwan's opening narration: the way modern life often separates people from the places and cultures they were born into, and the way our most common pleasures can help us maintain vital connections with roots we might otherwise lose. ``Food is everyone's first language,'' he concludes - and if any viewer is prone to disagree, the screen comes alive with culinary images that make a most persuasive argument.

From here on, ``Anatomy of a Springroll'' remains fascinated with the food of Kwan's youth - especially the dishes cooked by his mother, and especially the springrolls they both adore. It refuses to fall into the predictable patterns of a conventional documentary, however. On the soundtrack, Kwan's narration includes straightforward descriptions and recollections along with stories, fables, and poetic evocations of impressions and events from the past. The images are equally eclectic, moving from colorful animation and expressionistic slow-motion shots to a cinema-verite account of Kwan's return to the Saigon neighborhood where his family used to live. Steering between viewer-friendly entertainment and avant-garde experimentation, the result is often as surprising as it is enticing.

For all its charm, ``Anatomy of a Springroll'' could have used a little fine-tuning. One wishes for more information about some subjects introduced but not explored by the video, such as Kwan's father, a Chinese patriarch with no fewer than 24 children. Then too, some of Kwan's observations are closer to cliches than revelations, as when he defines the concept of home as ``something we can all understand ... a place in your heart.''

At its best, though, ``Anatomy of a Springroll'' is a sprightly and touching excursion into the best kind of multiculturalism, energized by the enthusiasm of its directors and the talents of its many contributors.

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