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Chinese Take Away (2002)


Chinese Take Away is an adaptation by filmmaker Mitzi Goldman of a one-woman theatre production written and performed by Anna Yen. Yen seeks to learn about a family tragedy and tells the complex story of the three generations of her family who moved from China in the early 1900s to Hong Kong in the 1930s and eventually to Sydney in the 1960s.

Curator’s notes

Chinese Take Away tells a deeply personal story about strength, loss and transformation in a unique and poetic way. Filmmaker Mitzi Goldman filmed Yen’s stage performance and was struck by the beauty and simplicity of the storytelling. Yen followed a method she developed when working in France with movement specialist, Monika Pagneux, which takes significant objects and improvises story and movement by free associating with the objects. For Yen, these objects included silk, rice and bowls. Goldman was enamoured of the way the props triggered memory and were used in the physical interpretation and expression of story. She wanted the screen adaptation to liberate the story from the confines of the stage and place Yen back in the real world.

Anna Yen performs the parts of her mother, grandmother, father and herself. Her myriad of skills include circus performance and martial arts, which are executed skilfully in the film. Chinese Take Away also uses stylised pieces – re-enactments, letters written to a third sister, historical footage and photographs. The cinematography, music and soundtrack weave together seamlessly.

The film (like the stage play) is rich in symbolism. On the stage, Anna Yen uses blue silk to represent a river. On the screen they kept the the river of silk motif that provides a thread throughout the narrative from China through Hong Kong to the Sydney suburbs (see clip one).

Yen tells an old story about women who worked away from home in the silk factories and resisted marriage. In re-imagining this sequence for the screen, Goldman was inspired by images in the film Ju Dou (1990, Zhang Yimou). She was also taken with the idea of the women sewing themselves into their undergarments to protect themselves from rape. Yen’s costume was made of small fragments of silk literally sewn around her body (see clip two).

Anna Yen brings her circus skills into her own story (see clip three). She had learned from the Nanjing troupe when they came to Australia. Goldman says:

We did the circus scene in a purposeful theatrical style with the set and historic costume, the posture of keeping up appearances and the balancing of life on the rope, the acknowledgement of what the past offers us in the present and what we inherit plus what we never know, what we uncover – the theatricality of life where we perform our roles.

Chinese Take Away is a moving and beautifully crafted documentary. The stories are very personal but speak universally. It has screened at over 20 international film and theatre festivals including in China, Denmark and Germany. Anna Yen has travelled with the film all over the world, performing a short excerpt of the stage play at theatre festivals. Chinese Take Away screened on SBS TV in 2003. It won Best Original Score – Non Feature from the Australian Guild of Screen Composers in 2003.