Food is a cultural touchpoint for immigrants across the board. When landscapes shift, languages change and customs differ, it’s food that ties people who move across oceans back to their home country. It’s an intricate part of the immigrant identity, sometimes the only thing they can carry with them when moving.
THE TASTE OF PHO explores this classic diasporic narrative through a tender tale of a timid father and his daughter in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Set in Warsaw, the film follows Long (Thang Long Do), a working class Vietnamese man working at a non-descript Vietnamese restaurant. As the restaurant switches ownership, Long is left to ruminate about his identity as a Vietnamese man in Poland. His young daughter Maja (Lena Nguyen) lays in the periphery, grappling with her void left by her white mother and her own struggle with her identity.
The film opens up to a boisterous soundtrack as Long gets his daughter’s clothes ready for work. There’s a cyclical nature to this scene; it breaks up the acts of the film with changes indicating a shift in their relationship. The morning routine is simple enough; Long prepares Maja’s clothing for the day, packs up her lunch and Maja leaves for school. It’s a charming fixture that offers a peek at their evolving relationship; sometimes Maja is a cheerful child, sometimes she rebuffs her father.
There are a few heavy handed moments in the film where it’s obvious director Mariko Bobrik wants to showcase some commonplace scenarios for immigrants. Characters (including other people of colour) often mistake Asia as a monolith. This is most prevalent in the restaurant scenes. The new white owner tells the staff to learn how to make sushi, despite having a predominantly Vietnamese staff. Always obedient, Long acquiesces. It’s an obvious metaphor for how immigrants have to assimilate towards their new country’s desires, even if it means moving away from what you know and love. Despite the obviousness, these moments still ring poignant, especially to those who directly relate to Long’s plight. Bobrik’s accessibility doesn’t alienate non-immigrants, which may be a detriment to those looking for a film with more grit.
Do is magnetic here, with a quiet and humble presence on screen that never stumbles into a performance that makes his character Long feel self-pitying. It’s a lovely contrast with Nguyen, who has the same timid sensibilities as her father with an edge of boisterousness that comes naturally to children. She doesn’t feel like a child in a cast of adults, but on the same playing field as them.
Despite their chemistry, there is much to be desired from the movie’s core relationship between the father and the daughter. The mother’s death feels like an addition that only comes to fruition in the final argument of the story. Although there are grounded moments between Long and Maja sprinkled throughout the film, when their relationship implodes towards the end, it doesn’t feel earned. Maja doesn’t garner enough sympathy throughout the film compared to her father’s story. Cinematography often falls in Long’s favour, shots spending more time on his reactions rather than giving equal weight to Maja’s actions. Whenever Maja jabs at her father about her mother’s death , the film stays on Long. In a story that offers a contrast between a man between two cultures and his daughter born within them, it would make sense to put them on equal footing. Bobrik stays safe with Maja’s story, which is disappointing considering the background of her character and the possibilities that could come with it. It doesn’t make Maja’s story unappealing per se, but it doesn’t explore anything new.
As a whole, the film feels like a collection of vignettes of your favourite meals. It is safe, heartwarming with no real surprises that catch you off guard. THE TASTE OF PHO may not offer anything exceptionally new, but sometimes that safety is what brings you comfort. Bobrik’s writing tends to stick to common diasporic themes; loss of culture, the idea of Asia as a monolith, gentrification and mixed race identity. It’s not to say
There is no grand ending to THE TASTE OF PHO, much like there is no dramatic flourish to the never-ending unravelling of your identity. But there is always comfort food, family and the understanding that maybe you’ll never understand.