Five takes: Asian-themed documentaries on Netflix

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Netflix’s trove of documentary features is bursting with options for the intrepid viewer looking to delve deep into the lives of others. Ever wonder what goes on within the fortress of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese anime production powerhouse, of Princess Mononoke fame? Or thought about what it’s like to be a beloved Internet meme? And who exactly is the man behind General Tso – was he a warrior whose influence on Chinese cuisine eclipsed his military prowess or simply a mythical figure cooked up to give a dish its heritage? The Origami selects five Asian-themed flicks streaming now, which cut into the heart of how Asian culture has thrived.

  1. The Search for General Tso, dir. Ian Cheney, 75 min.

You’ve likely had your fill of General Tso’s Chicken at any number of Chinese restaurants.

This ubiquitous dish has captured the appetites of Americans and Canadians alike, satisfying comfort-food cravings for generations. But does it actually originate in China? How did it take over the menus of Chinese restaurants in North America? Who was its namesake? Was there ever a namesake? These questions, and more, are the focus of The Search for General Tso, which took  documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney to Shanghai, New York, the American Midwest, Taipei and other cities to trace its origins.

While there’s no doubt Chinese food has adapted to the North American palate for deep-fried fare and sugar over spice, the film takes a close at why it was so crucial for the dishes to become a hit. Pioneers of Chinese cuisine, many of them immigrants who settled in California, but later fanned out to remote corners of America to avoid persecution resulting from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1872 , grace the screen.

The mystery behind General Tso delivers a fulfilling ending, leaving viewers to consider their own perceptions of a food’s culture and the people behind the kitchen doors. It gives credit to where it’s due in an often-faceless industry.

2. Cutie and the Boxer, dir. Zachary Heinzerling, 82 mins. 

Chances are the name Ushio Shinohara doesn’t recall images of sculptural cardboard pieces splattered with paint. That’s because his claim to fame in the 1960s as a Japanese avant-garde artist was that “he was the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in New York,” as critics once said. Ushio’s pieces provoked interest but were not sellable, but persist he did.

The everyday struggles of Ushio and his artist wife, Noriko, are chronicled in Cutie and the Boxer, a portrait of artists vying for their work to be recognized and valued.

Theirs is a turbulent but loving relationship that endures even in the face of Ushio’s dashed dreams and alcoholism. The past interrupts the present: archival footage and Noriko’s paintings inform the viewer of just how messy their 40-year relationship can be, and how, art, once released can be liberating for those living in the past.

3. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, dir. Mami Sunada, 120 mins. 

Unassuming and sharp witted, resident director Hayao Miyazaki emerges as the star in a documentary that trails the three heavyweights behind Studio Ghibli , the Japanese anime studio that has adults the world over amassing collectible merchandise of Totoro.

Miyazaki, in his 70s, reveals himself to be this grandfatherly figure, delighting local children with his sheep sculptures and engaging the curiosities of his staff even as his process for producing a film’s narrative is rooted in mystery. His work is unscripted and built on storyboards, with the full narrative coming to fore as he paints in the moment. Words, to Miyazaki, can never fully capture the world’s complexity.

Against the backdrop of Miyazaki’s everyday routine, the studio’s race to finish two films for simultaneous release – The Wind Rises and Tale of Princess Kaguya ­– unfolds. The two lifelong colleagues, Miyazaki and his creative counterpart, Isao Takahata, are rivaling it out with their own productions.

Anyone unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli’s work can still appreciate the narrative of a tortured artist as he comes to grips with his decision to bow out, to release his final feature.

4. To Be Takei, directed by Jennifer M. Kroot and Bill Weber, 94 mins. 

George Takei has been an icon of sorts for Asian-American actors, the LGBT community and Trekkies. He’s built a massive cult following on social media. And in his heyday, in the 1970s, he was considered a sci-fi hero sex symbol.

His remarkable life of adversity and rise to fame is chronicled in To Be Takei, which digs up painful memories of his family’s internment during the Second World War to his ascent into space as Sulu in the original Star Trek series. The documentary considers Takei’s enduring connection to generations young and old, and goes beyond reliving his claim to fame to give viewers a deeper sense of what he’s made of.

5. Sushi: The Global Catch, dir. Mark S. Hall, 75 mins

What was once a delicacy that took years of apprenticeship to execute to perfection can now be popped out of a tube for consumption: Sushi Popper, anyone?

As appetites for the bluefin tuna, predator of the sea, surge worldwide, The Global Catch looks into the high cost of making affordable sushi year round.

Though Japan’s Tsukiji Market remains the centre for worldwide distribution of tuna ­– where the prized catch is sold to the highest bidder – tradition is now caught in a tailspin as, according to scientists, the world’s stock plunges to unsustainable levels.


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