Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.
The story of Huy Fong Sriracha — the bright red Vietnamese-styled, Thai-originated, American-made hot sauce found on nearly every table in America — is one worth telling. The reasons are manifold. Firstly, it's like the Dr. Bronner's of condiments, ubiquitous but mysterious. Secondly, the man who invented it, David Tran, is a compelling cypher. Thirdly, because Kickstarter has to survive somehow and how would it, if not by funding short documentaries with narrow appeal?
At only 33 minutes and available for $5 on Vimeo, the stakes seem relatively low. If you watch this movie you will know much more about Sriracha than if you didn't. You'd find out, for instance, that many people love Sriracha. The company sells an astonishing 20 million bottles of this stuff. This point is tidily, if repetitively, made by the testimonies of scores of Sriracha lovers captured by indie filmmaker Griffin Hammond.
More interestingly, you might discover the company, based in Rosemead, California, is run with little eye toward profit. This is the choice of David Tran, a soft-spoken ethnically Chinese Vietnamese immigrant who settled near Los Angeles. It is there that, desirous of the hot sauce from home to top his pho, he formulated Huy Fong's Sriracha, made with garlic, jalapenos, vinegar, sugar and salt. You'd learn the name of the company comes from the freighter that delivered Mr. Tran from Vietnam. And you'll be treated to a quite nice "How It's Made" montage. Watching Sriracha fill an empty bottle is extremely soothing. Now that Mr. Rogers has become the facile show Daniel Tiger, the $5 is worth it just for that.
But I wouldn't watch it again. The reasons are also manifold, just a bit more manifold than the reasons to watch it in the first place. Firstly, you can learn much of what's in the film through other sources like this article in Quartz or this profile in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Secondly, the story of Sriracha is in no way a poignant story. It's interesting, not melancholy; good, not beautiful. Basically it's a success story of a hard-working, ethically pure businessman who makes a product millions of people like. So I don't understand why the film feels more like a eulogy than a celebration. But the veil of melancholy — indicated by the sound track, the oversaturation, the lingering shots — is more opaque here than at an Iron & Wine concert. It's infuriating.
Hammond, though, is just a victim of Instagramification of everything. In this brave new filtered world, a picture isn't beautiful if it isn't slightly sad. A documentary can't be made if it doesn't have a mopey soundtrack playing behind it. I also blame Vimeo. You don't get this sad shoegazing shit on YouTube. I'd take the randomly spelled racist comments any day. [If only to confirm my already burning misanthropy.]
And some of the over-sweetness is, I suspect, a holdover from Hammond's old day job as a wedding videographer where, I suppose, sad sweetness is the prevailing feeling. Do you know ancient Greeks used to sing laments not only for deaths but for weddings too? They did, I wrote my thesis on it. NYU is worthless. But what makes for a good connubial reel does not make for a good documentary. Hammond is so enamored with sadness, he obscures the naturally compelling story. Yeah, it's a beautifully shot film but as Tran might say himself, "Cai net danh chet cai dep." Goodness is better than beauty.
The real irony here and the true sadness is that around the same time the movie debuted — a documentary celebrating the brand's success and its expansion into a new factory — that factory was shut down by the FDA. The given reason was to assess whether the sauce is safe to eat even though, according to the FDA itself, there have been no complaints of illness. Simultaneously, a California judge forced the plant to stop grinding chilis because neighbors complained of gagging fits, bleeding noses and burning eyes. This is, of course, after Irwindale offered Tran what he called "irresistible" loans to move his plant there.
Though this bodes poorly for the future of Sriracha, the end of Huy Fond Sriracha might be the only way to rehabilitate the documentary Sriracha and to justify its lugubrious shmaltz.
Rating: 2/5 stars.