GOURMET BABY

a film by Sandi Tan

SHORT / 16MM / SUPER 16/ COLOR/ USA

A lonely middle-aged man is neurotically fixated on his young niece.  He wants to turn her into his ideal dining companion.

REVIEW

Review of Sandi Tan’s Gourmet Baby (2001) by Paul Ricketts for The Standard Print

Immanuel Kant cautioned that eating alone could lead to “intellectual self-gnawing,” while social dining is a “veritable medicine for the mind.” According to Uncle Lee, the protagonist of the 2001 short film Gourmet Baby, “The only horror of dining alone is the misplaced pity of those who think that you are lonely.” So, under the auspices of putting others at ease, the “openly misanthropic” uncle recruits his niece Winnie to be his weekly dining companion. With each successive gustatory encounter, however, it becomes less and less clear which of them is most befitting of the film’s title.

Sandi Tan wrote, directed, and produced Gourmet Baby. She draws on a mélange of filmic genres and conventions to tell this unique story. The cast includes veteran actor Lim Kay Tong as Uncle Lee, the prodigal expat, Cheyenne Allenspach as his niece Winnie at seven, and Carla Dunareanu as Winnie at twelve. Tan, who is based in Los Angeles, has lived and worked in Singapore and chose the city as the setting for her film because “food remains the dominant cultural pursuit … and restaurant excursions have always been a substitute for actual social interaction, which in rigid Asian families can be painfully awkward.” Uncle Lee, a middle-aged bachelor, returns to Singapore after living abroad and is disappointed by what he finds. And even though he deplores his “slattern sister,” he does view her daughter as a gastronomical protégé.

Our first introduction to this odd pairing occurs not in a fine restaurant, but at a school playground. Uncle Lee has come to save Winnie from the tuna sandwich her “dummy mummy” has packed her for lunch. He feeds his niece slices of Gorgonzola through a fence and then offers her some Perrier, which she sips through a curly straw. The bright blues and greens of the playground contrast starkly with his black polo shirt and steel watch. The next scene takes place in an elegant restaurant, where the uncle instructs Winnie on the finer points of sushi, while tenderly feeding her sea urchin with his chopsticks. Uncle Lee’s efforts to edify his young niece are bolstered by the fact that she is a quick study. At another sushi restaurant, the chef praises Winnie’s discerning palate: “She has a good tongue.”

Alas, all good things (as they say) must come to an end. And so the “dining bliss” that Uncle Lee enjoyed with his niece becomes a distant memory as Winnie inevitably transforms from guileless girl-child into petulant pre-teen. In the film, a telling interlude stands in for a five-year jump in time. The montage of child prodigies features photographs of Bobby Fischer, the American chess master, and the Romanian Olympian gymnast Nadia Comăneci with her coach Bela Karolyi. Through the uncle’s accompanying voiceover, we hear his argument for an understanding of the young as “superior beings.” He maintains that youth are more “curious about the world’s possibilities” and are “willing to try anything.” Tan’s focus on a male figure who privileges a youthful sensibility not yet indoctrinated by adults strikes an authentically Salingerian note. And, like a catcher in the rye, Uncle Lee seems bent on saving Winnie from “becoming an inarticulate blob like the rest of them.”

A long close-up of the now twelve-year-old Winnie’s tongue highlights the main reason their relationship has spoiled. The culprit, according to Uncle Lee, is her deteriorating taste buds: “I have read that the tongue of the female creature reaches its height of sensitivity at the age of ten. After the crest, its taste buds deteriorate rapidly. Mediocrity follows suit, nourished by years of overcooked hamburgers and airplane peanuts.” It is also at this juncture that the short switches gears from touching portrait to humorous satire. Indeed, the worldly uncle is gradually exposed as more of a lonely naïf than a connoisseur of good taste.

The all too often typecast Lim Kay Tong effectively conveys the quiet desperation his character feels at the prospect of losing his “gourmet baby.” I am thinking, in particular, here of the jilted lover moment when we see his reflection in the window of his darkened apartment as he stares nervously at the night skyline while smoking a cigarette. And in the next scene, where he happens to discover Winnie (wearing a t-shirt that has REBEL emblazoned across the front) cheating on him with some friends at McDonalds—horror of horrors! These are just a couple of examples of the film’s ironically comedic appeal. After repeatedly being snubbed by his niece we get a shot of Uncle Lee sitting alone in an otherwise empty restaurant, where he resolves to “remind her of the pleasures of her former self.” During their subsequent phone conversation a perturbed Winnie, played quite capably by Carla Dunareanu, reluctantly agrees to meet her uncle again on the condition that their next meal be their last.

In a clever aural segue to the film’s third act, her eventual capitulation is greeted by a spontaneous show of emotion from Uncle Lee, who makes five quick rhythmic taps on his office window. We then see Winnie making the very same gesture, albeit less gleefully, on the driver’s side window of her uncle’s Jaguar when he stops by the house to pick her up for dinner. And finally a violin in the film’s score echoes the staccato rhythm for good measure. It is here that Winnie’s mother makes her first and only appearance, but her blurred figure is barely discernable as she waves goodbye from the veranda in the background. This particular frame, shot through the passenger’s side window, is a prime example of Tan’s compositional acumen; it succinctly encapsulates the fraught dynamics between Winnie, her uncle, and her mother.

For their final dinner together, Uncle Lee takes Winnie to a gourmet restaurant named Les Amants, where they are to enjoy the dégustation menu. The camera circles around their backs as if they were about to begin a high-stakes poker game, while tango music conspicuously mimics the strategic back and forth. John Sharpley’s classical score helps to keep this otherwise bleak portrait on a more whimsical plane. The now desperate uncle worries that his niece is on a different temporal wavelength: “I felt time was going too fast, but I could sense that she thought time was going too slow.” Afraid that “this could be my last chance or hers,” he reaches across the table and takes her watch off in an attempt to mitigate the growing distance between them.

A watch, a fence, windowpanes, phones, and, in the case of the penultimate scene, a large table, all act as barriers that mediate the characters’ interactions. Only after Winnie accuses her Uncle Lee of being a “closet case” does he decide that he has “had enough” and promptly drives her home. The din of cicadas serves to amplify the tension inside the parked car. In what turns out to be a hilarious climax, he decides to go for broke and offers to take Winnie on a pilgrimage to a venerable Hanoi restaurant so she can taste its renowned pike dish. In response, all his mortified niece can do is slink out of the car and hope that she is rid of him once and for all.