Film Review: The Search for General Tso

Smart, informative investigation into the elusive General Tso and the iconic Chinese-American chicken dish that bears his name also affords a fascinating look at the history of Chinese-Americans and their successful assimilation into our society.

With his highly cinematic and aromatic “search,” filmmaker Ian Cheney, given great assist from others, especially producer/commentator Jennifer 8. Lee, delivers a very stylish, big-screen-worthy presentation here, enlivened by handsome animation and graphics and forays to the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

The Search for General Tso is after the origins of the hugely popular General Tso’s chicken, available in countless Chinese-American restaurants throughout the entire country, from high-end eateries to the many hundreds of strip-mall establishments that serve fast, tasty, cheap take-out (in addition to sit-down), usually 365 days a year. It’s also a search for Tso himself.

Mysteries abound, but the hunt is dogged. Who was the General? Did he serve with Mao or was he from the Qing Dynasty? Where and how was his chicken dish invented and is it even authentically Chinese? (Apparently, General Tso’s chicken, like fortune cookies, is a U.S. invention.) There’s even ambiguity about how to correctly spell and pronounce “Tso” (cho, so, jo, toe?).

What emerges in the doc is a fascinating look at Chinese immigration to the U.S., which began with the 1850s gold rush and resulted in the Chinese diaspora across America when the immigrants encountered West Coast discrimination. Planting new roots throughout the country, the Chinese worked hard, were savvy enough to know that laundry and food were the businesses to build, and had the support of family and, in the bigger cities, tight-knit associations that helped the population. They are also keen adapters, as evidenced by the alligator dish on a Chinese-American Louisiana menu.

Statistics too help tell the current story: The Chinese represent only one percent of the U.S. population but the country is covered with over 50,000 Chinese restaurants which have done billions of dollars of business.

But Cheney’s eye always returns to that chicken and that general. He finds important clues in Hunan province, Shanghai and Taiwan. And viewers are always in plenty of knowledgeable company: Chinese-American restaurateurs like Phoenix’s Harlan Lee and Ed Schoenfeld, a New York-based Chinese cuisine expert who runs one of Manhattan’s most popular restaurants; memorabilia collectors like Harley Spiller, who has amassed over 10,000 Chinese-American menus over several decades; historians and locals alike in the U.S. and China who hold forth on the mysterious General Tso.

Also on this menu is plenty of food porn by way of seductive shots of the chicken dish. And Ben Fries and Simon Beins’ subtle, unobtrusive score hits just the right notes.

Like all great meals, The Search for General Tso is a celebration of a culture, survival, tolerance, basic pleasures and the rewards reaped by all concerned. Even more pleasurable is that mystery—or might the search just be the MacGuffin beyond which lie some valuable ideas relating to our immigration problems?

Click here for cast and crew information.