Getting surprising mileage from a bite-sized subject, "The Killing of a Chinese Cookie" is a thoroughly amusing look at the fortune cookie -- its disputed origins, pop-culture profile and every other possible angle. Accomplished first feature by Derek Shimoda is the kind of light after-dinner documentary perfect for pubcasters and other upscale-novelty-seeking broadcasters.
Getting surprising mileage from a bite-sized subject, “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” is a thoroughly amusing look at the fortune cookie — its disputed origins, pop-culture profile and every other possible angle. Accomplished first feature by Derek Shimoda is the kind of light after-dinner documentary perfect for pubcasters and other upscale-novelty-seeking broadcasters.
It turns out there’s quite a bit of argument over who “invented” the fortune cookie, with several San Francisco and Los Angeles figures claimed by their descendants and some scholars as deserving the credit. Likeliest scenario, however, is that it was created as a promotional item for the still-extant Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park nearly a century ago.
When West Coast Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor, Chinese-American bakeries began making the cookie, which gradually became ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants despite having no traditional role in Chinese cuisine.
Now it’s a global thing, valued not so much for taste as for entertainment value. One mass-production factory produces up to 5 million of the (once hand-made) sweets per day. We also meet professional fortune writers, and some in the diverse roster of interviewees are asked to pen their own ideal fortunes — the best being “Stop being so desperate that you’re looking for answers here.”
Sometimes it’s a good idea to follow one’s fortune, however, as about 120 Powerball gamblers discovered not long ago. Expecting something closer to four or five high winners, lottery officials suspected a security leak, only to find that the lucky numbers had corresponded to those in a recent fortune cookie.
Other diverting bits include relevant episode clips from “The Monkees” and “The Simpsons.” There’s discussion of the naughty popular jape of adding “in bed” to the end of any fortune recitation, as demonstrated in a funny clip from the feature film “Guinevere,” though a terrific skit from the sketch-comedy series “Upright Citizens Brigade” is strangely absent. An anonymous conceptual artist who snuck absurdist-message cookies into restaurants to see patrons’ reactions is another highlight.
Shimoda and editor James Lu sometimes questionably cut footage to make certain interviewees look foolish, although the technique duly raises laughs. More appealing in the overall sharp package is some simple animation by Neil Lee Thompsett.