Tropical storm Hannah blew in late this afternoon, dumping 3-4 inches of rain onto the city in a matter of hours, flooding the streets of Flushing and halting play at the U.S. Tennis Open Tournament nearby.
At the corner of Prince Street and Roosevelt Avenue sits Sifu Chio, an unassuming restaurant which my parents introduced to me as one of the best places in town to get a bowl of authentic Hong Kong-style wonton noodles – a simple thing, done very well. (Chowhounds like the dumplings.) The restaurant isn’t quite a dive, but the aesthetic is rather plain and utilitarian: open kitchen, florescent lights overhead, menus on the table under glass and every dish served in disposable plasticware. We were the only ones in the shop this evening, probably owing in no small part to the river of wretched rainwater coursing along the sidewalk in front.
What had started out as an order of a few bowls of wonton noodles expanded to include a side of Chinese beef brisket, a dish of Chinese broccoli, a bowl of noodles and fish balls, and a bowl of shrimp watercress dumplings. As the driving rain pounded against the darkened windows, we eagerly scarfed down every bite.
Hard to pinpoint precisely what sets these noodles apart from the hundreds of other bowls I’ve eaten over the years. Dumplings made to order — delicate, tender skins with deliciously fresh filling — are certainly one factor. Mostly, I think, it’s the perfectly textured noodles. In Cantonese, the word to describe them is “song,” a wonderful adjective which has no true English equivalent. Song can be used to describe a bitingly crisp wedge of fruit, a firm yet succulent shrimp, or here, snappy, springy noodles. Al dente in this context comes close, I suppose, but doesn’t quite get to the heart of the irresistibly pleasurable sensation: of tooth meeting initial resistance, then bursting through to tender, juicy center. “Toothsome” (definition 2) is the best general English translation, though I find it lacking in the poetry of “song“.
Later that night, the second annual Sunnyside Shorts Film Festival, which had been scheduled to take place at The Sunnyside Gardens Park, was driven indoors to the newly inaugurated Sunnyside Senior Center at Sunnyside Community Services (Note to self: 39th Street — not the same as 39th Place. A girl raised in Queens should know this. I plead temporary rain-blindness.)
We sat at round formica-topped tables to watch the 16 submissions by filmmakers hailing predominantly from New York — among them a few Sunnyside locals — with contributions from Europe and South America. Several of the short films were set in New York City, and covered an array of genres: animation, documentaries, comedic skits, one painfully earnest teen film student exercise, a sock puppet music video…
Quality varied widely. My favorite was Yolanda Pividal’s 16-minute “Two Dollar Dance” — a poignant examination of the Latino clubs dotted along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights where a clientele of immigrant men, isolated from mainstream society, gather in the evening to pay for female companionship, if only for the duration of a song — an update of the “dime a dance” girls of the taxi-dance halls of the 20s and 30s. (Unsurprisingly, the workers at these places are often exploited.)
But as credits rolled on the experimental “interpretive dance” short (oof), I discreetly slipped out with SH and AP, in search of the less challenging pleasures of frozen yogurt: green tea and blood orange for me.
All of J’s careful plans were in place for tonight’s surprise birthday party, so there was not much for me to do except show up at the appointed time. We spent the afternoon at my local movie theater watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall… an oddly poignant choice of film, in retrospect. First-time director Nicholas Stoller, and writer/star Jason Segel are alumni of Judd Apatow‘s cult television shows “Undeclared” and “Freaks and Geeks.” Like the other recent hits from Apatow Productions, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is framed around a guy on a quest to become a man — here, in the wake of a soul-crushing break-up — and has all the familiar earmarks of the producer’s other films: the bawdiness (with a core of sweetness), the male nudity, the familiar stock-company faces (Segel, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader). Its strength lies in finding the humor in everything from the inherent awkwardness of intimate pairings, wallowing break-up mixes (featuring Sinéad O’Connor and The Smiths, naturally), sanctimonious rock stars, and cliché-ridden television crime dramas. (It must be noted that William Baldwin channels David Caruso rather awesomely.)
The advertising campaign — full sized billboards denigrating the fictional Sarah Marshall (a somewhat bland Kristen Bell) — caused some strife with real-life Sarah Marshalls everywhere, but audiences and critics responded positively. Who can’t identify with a little heartbreak, after all?
My favorite bits — no, not what you think, dirty birds! — involved the hedonistic, pseudo-spiritual Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), who was both vacuous and almost admirable in his ruthless honesty. (Is it always the best policy?) And I’ve long been a fan of Segel, who wrote the film’s Infant Sorrow songs and the tunes for his character’s Dracula musical. We knew Segel had it in him after his “Slapsgiving” song follow-up to the legendary “Slap Bet” episode on How I Met Your Mother.
Incidentally, Segel’s HIMYM co-star Neil Patrick Harris was profiled in the Sunday Times that day, in a piece during which he referenced both Trent Reznor and Scooby-Doo…. making it very difficult for me to decide which of the two actors I like more. (Yes, yes… I know.)
On J’s rooftop (from which the Macy’s July 4th fireworks are not visible), ominous clouds began gathering overhead as our coterie huddled together, waiting for the payoff appearance of our birthday guest of honor. A successful “surprise!”… followed by a hasty retreat downstairs for a Turkish buffet.
J had outdone himself with the arrangements for the feast: hummus, falafel, Mediterranean Salad, Sigara Borek (pan fried cigar-shaped crispy pastries stuffed with feta cheese), Chicken Adana (char-grilled ground chicken seasoned with spicy red pepper) and Grilled Lamb Meatballs with Rice.
On the slate for tonight’s film seminar: A Previous Engagement, which contrary to its British period piece-y sounding title is a romantic comedy, and one which rather unusually features a cast of characters over 50.
Juliet Stevenson stars as Julia, a Seattle-based woman vacationing in Malta with her husband (Daniel Stern). Unbeknownst to him, she is there to fulfill a long-ago promise to reunite with her French lover, Alex (Tchéky Karyo) with whom she had an intense affair on the island years earlier. The premise called to mind a bit of Before Sunrise — that wondrous film about “two nice kids, literate, sensitive, tentative, intoxicated by the fact that their lives stretch out before them, filled with mystery and hope, and maybe love.” Except here, the two parting lovers decided to meet not in six months, but in twenty-five years, after much of their lives have been lived. In the intervening time, the once aspiring writer Julia has become a middle-aged librarian married to a jigsaw puzzle-obsessed insurance salesman, and Alex an oft-divorced literary journal editor. Once the pair is reunited, complications ensue, and the results are mixed: part screwball comedy, part bedroom farce and part bittersweet romance.
Writer-director Joan Carr-Wiggin was tonight’s guest, and talked about getting this film made in a climate where most Hollywood films have a young, often male, sensibility. The economist turned filmmaker well understood the steep challenges a film such as hers would face in financing; in this case her husband, producer David Gordian, was able to fund the film in Canada and Europe, where Carr-Wiggins claims the system is much more welcoming towards women directors and character-based films than in the United States.
Because the film was fully financed at the outset, Carr-Wiggins had full control over her film – a rare privilege for a second-time director. She was able to cast her favorite actress in the lead; Stevenson has a long list of British television and film credits, but is probably best known for her role as cellist Nina in Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) — the late great Anthony Minghella’s film debut.
While the film has a certain intriguing “What if…?” premise, the execution was a bit too ham-fisted for my tastes. (Does the husband really have to be so cluelessly boring, the daughters so gratingly self-absorbed?) Credit is due, though, for framing the story around a middle-aged woman — a demographic grossly underrepresented in current cinema — and for the not entirely predictable ending.
A Previous Engagement opened in New York and Los Angeles for Mother’s Day weekend, on May 9.
“There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.'”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Sensible Thing”
Were truer words ever written?
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