In The Killing of a Chinese Cookie, director Derek Shimoda delivers viewers everything they could ever possibly want to know about fortune cookies, those delicious little fortune-delivering snacks we (Americans) love to crunch on after gorging ourselves on Chinese food.
Right up front, the documentary tackles the question of, “Who invented the fortune cookie?” The answer to this question is surprisingly clouded in mystery. No less than four different (unrelated) interviewees claim to be direct descendants of the inventor of the fortune cookie. While some have more factual evidence than others, none have any verifiable proof. The two things everybody seems to agree on are (a) fortune cookies were invented in California (probably in the 1920s), and (b) they were invented by Japanese-Americans.
Japanese? Yes! In the 1920s and 30s, fortune cookies were largely associated with Japanese-Americans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor many Japanese-Americans were placed into “War Relocation Camps,” at which point Chinese-Americans adopted the manufacturing and distribution of fortune cookies … and the rest is history. As one interviewee states, “Fortune Cookies were invented by the Japanese, distributed by the Chinese, and served to the Americans.” To drive the point home, one elderly Chinese man is handed a fortune cookie. His on-camera response: “What is this?”
The history of the cookie is by and large the most interesting part of the documentary, but that story alone couldn’t fill a 90 minute documentary so the rest of the film consists of a dozen or so mini-stories about fortune cookies. We get to see how fortune cookies were once hand made. We also get to see a modern cookie production factory that churns out 5 million cookies a day. We meet a father/daughter team that make cookies and pen the fortunes found inside. We learn about an art project in which eccentric artists created works of art based on fortune cookies they received. We meet a man (his identity is blocked) who collects “rejected and innappropriate” fortunes that didn’t make the cut, and published them (under the pseudonym Joe Wang — cute). We hear about a guy that played a prank by sneaking fake fortune cookies into restaurants (I would have liked to hear more about the logistics of how this was done). We see clips of fortune cookies appearing in popular culture, one of which disappointingly uses harsh R-Rated language, tainting an otherwise family-friendly film. What a poor choice on the director’s part.
According to IMDB, The Killing of a Chinese Cookie has a 75-minute run time, but I could have sworn it ran for two hours. The last half of the movie drags, seeming less like a documentary and more like a series of 5-10 minute unrelated bits that should have been condensed to 2 minutes. A 10-15 minute section in the middle of the film is subtitled, which slows the film’s pace. (I get it, they’re from China, but still.) By the time you get to the section where every interviewee gets to make up their own perfect fortune for themselves, you’ll be ready for the film to end. At least, I was.
If you’re into random trivia and quirky documentaries, give The Killing of a Chinese Cookie a shot. I picked up a few factoids and found at least some of it interesting. It’s not a bad film, but it does run out of steam (and material) before you reach the end.
Sometimes, that’s how the cookie crumbles.
Available via Netflix/Netflix Streaming.