Feeding into the West’s growing appetite for modern China, Weijun Chen’s “The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World” examines the country’s customs and culture — not to mention some of its more unusual culinary practices — from within the walls of a kitschy eating establishment. An Imperial City-sized fortress of food, the Hunan-based West Lake (Xihulou) Restaurant accommodates 5,000 diners and serves as a popular venue to celebrate weddings, births and other significant occasions, making it a wonderful microcosm of China at large. Exploring every corner, Chen prepares a lively, accessible survey bound to play some of the world’s smallest screens.
As in his entertaining grade-school election documentary “Please Vote for Me,” Chen shoots with outside audiences in mind, relying on a New York-based editing team to bring everything together at the snappy clip Western viewers can follow. At the risk of appearing prosaic in the eyes of tastemakers and critics, Chen’s style opts for accessibility over the languorous, some-might-say-tedious artistry of Asian contemporaries like Jia Zhangke.
In the long run, that choice could extend Chen’s reach beyond the arthouse, though this won’t be the picture to do it. His mistake here is focusing too heavily on West Lake founder Qin Linzi and her family, which casts the docu as a free-market rags-to-riches story. It’s not that Qin isn’t interesting — she did leverage the success of a modest local eatery to finance this massive expansion — but pic catches up with her long after that ambitious gamble earned its Guinness Book distinction.
Today, West Lake functions as yet another outsized Chinese business. So, while there’s no drama in tallying Qin’s ongoing prosperity, auds have every reason to be curious about the private lives of the 1,000 anonymous faces dancing, serving or changing the light fixtures. It takes Chen nearly an hour to get around to profiling the employees, who live in dormitories on-site and send their wages back home to their families, but docu immediately takes on a richer texture when he does.
One of the most telling details is the contrast between the elaborate dishes customers enjoy and the unremarkable food offered to staff. Then again, what distinguishes contemporary China is the explosion of disposable income, as evidenced by the lavish spending of West Lake’s customers. Chen captures this dramatic transition in which those with money can afford to be treated like emperors — the very fantasy upon which Qin founded her operation.