“The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” – 2008 AAIFF Review

A documentary charting the evolution of the fortune cookie sounds as enticing as the desire to crack open the bland biscuit and read the words printed on the tiny slip of paper in it. A longtime staple dessert in Chinese restaurants across the U.S., director Derek Shimoda attempts to determine the origin of the fortune cookie and how it came to be so popular in “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie,” which screened at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York City.

It quickly becomes apparent that the documentary’s title is a bit misleading; the fortune cookie is not only alive and well, but it may not even be a Chinese invention. Three different families lay claim to being the original inventors, eventually pitting San Francisco vs. Los Angeles and Japan vs. China in an amusing battle for the biscuit, and resulting in a colorful account of a mock trial seeking to determine the cookie’s true inventor.

The eccentric individuals’ anecdotes drive the film’s narrative, but it is here that the narrative begins to – no pun intended – break apart. While the film is chockfull of information, what ensues is a cornucopia of relevant trivia and superfluous, mildly-entertaining minutia. The lives of fortune cookie fortune writers – there are just two dueling companies in this arena – and the footage from Japan focusing on the senbei biscuit that possibly inspired its American cousin are particularly fascinating. Other segments, not so much. Miss South Carolina 2005’s good luck? The tired joke of adding “in bed” to the end of every fortune? Fortune cookie-inspired erotic art? Images from space? It gets to the point where the confusing swirl of information becomes as convoluted as the erotic artist’s rambling, cringe-inducing attempt to answer a question about the topic at hand. Tighter editing and more carefully-selected footage would have made this documentary a bit more focused. Still, there is enough in the film to make the odyssey of the fortune cookie a curiosity for foodies and non-foodies alike.

“The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” screens at the Asian American International Film Festival on Mon., July 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Maysles Cinema, 343 Malcolm X Blvd. (between 127th and 128th Sts.). Tickets can be purchased at the venue. To learn more about the documentary, go to www.killingofachinesecookie.com.