‘Yen Ching’: a he-said, she said film review

The two Chen boys check their devices over a meal in “Yen Ching.”

The two Chen boys check their devices over a meal in “Yen Ching.”




“Yen Ching” was shown three times during the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival.

HE: “Yen Ching” attempts to tell several stories: the story of immigrants struggling to maintain their Chinese restaurant of the documentary film’s title; the story of parents and child clashing as the former reach their middle years as the latter reaches adulthood; the story of adjusting—little by little—to American life without abandoning one’s native culture. Quite an undertaking in a time slot barely exceeding one hour.  And an admirable undertaking, if a not-at-all startling production directed by Yinan Wang.

SHE: I was immediately drawn to the hard-working restaurant owner, Mr. Chen, who came to America to take over his uncle’s business in 2001, leaving behind his wife and young boys. His family didn’t join him until about 10 years later, after the boys had grown to young men. He explains in the opening how he does everything at the restaurant – from cooking and cleaning to washing dishes. In the film, he is a whirl of activity – stirring, mixing, pouring. His wife is also there and his oldest son, but both seem to work at a snail’s pace by comparison. The other son, who is in college, is said to work like his father when he’s at the restaurant.

HE: “Yen Ching” is a Milwaukee story. The restaurant is at 76th and Good Hope, on the northwest side. Sometimes business is booming, other times not. Film footage seems to focus primarily on neighborhoods near the restaurant, and the restaurant itself. Since much of the filming was done in winter, the harshness of that snowy season in our region is very apparent. Something that saddened me as I sat inside the Oriental Theatre was the message the movie gave me that winter is coming up—and too darn quickly.

SHE: I had eaten at the restaurant several times and it was interesting to see the family behind the business. I felt like I had a window to the world of an immigrant family and their struggles, which we don’t often think about. Despite seemingly devoting every waking hour to the restaurant, the family lives in a modest apartment while still paying off the large loan. The scenes with the mom when her son comes home for Christmas break are so charming as she insists he drink a bad-tasting tea because it’s good for him, quizzing him on whether he has a girlfriend, fussing over him like a mother hen.  You see generational rifts, as well, between the mom and dad – one particularly heated one was on religion. I just found myself taken in by this family and empathizing with all their trials and tribulations. I’d give it an A.

HE: While I liked the balanced portrait of Mr. Chen—work ethic like few others, yet quite capable of flying off the handle and reluctant at times to let his wife get a word in edgewise—and appreciated watching Mrs. Chen’s mothering and the sons’ good-natured squabbling, I felt the movie was very predictable, lacked a boffo climax … but then, of course, this was a slice of life documentary and not a fictional feature. There was just sort of a “So what?” feeling walking out of the auditorium. I would’ve enjoyed a bit more focus on the college son’s brother and a bit more info about what happened in the aftermath of the movie; the viewer was told a little about the post-movie Chen and his college son. I’d give it a very solid B.