Anthony Bourdain watched 30 minutes of “Baby Driver” before he walked out of the movie theater. “It rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning,” he said, looking back on an experience that led him to tweet “Fuck BABY DRIVER” to his millions of followers. “I felt like right away I knew what was going to happen to everybody in the cast. I just felt it was telegraphed so early and painfully. I had a violent physical reaction. I stumbled out the theater in a pit of depression and fury.”
That’s the thing about Bourdain, who has spent two decades hosting food shows with a unique blend of machismo, travel fever, and cultural inquiry: A television personality who’s a creature of cinema, he devours movies almost as frequently as the cuisines at the center of his show. And in all instances, he’s man of discerning tastes.
“When you called, I was watching ‘Edge of Darkness,’ with Mel Gibson, which is this horrifyingly bad film based on this incredibly great five-hour British series,” he said, picking up the phone on a Thursday afternoon in between shoots. “I’m mesmerized by its awfulness. Some things should never be remade.”
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That said, Bourdain often indulges in remakes and homages within his shows. On CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which he’s hosted for five years, his cinematic influences often overshadow the food in the various countries he travels. “It’s always been, to one extent or another, a stealth food show,” he said. “We pretend it’s about food. It rarely is. We always talk about films first, before we head to a location, for visual cues, for sound, for editing. We love nothing more than duping, emulating, or riffing on a film that few of our audiences have actually seen.”
A Perfect Match
On his show, Bourdain has spent time with film luminaries ranging from Frances Ford Coppola to Darren Aronofsky, but the June 3 episode is an especially potent reflection of his cinephilia: “Hong Kong” finds Bourdain celebrating the city through his longtime affection for Wong Kar-wai movies, sampling expressionistic clips from “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love,” and hanging around the city with the filmmaker’s rambunctious cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Watching Doyle, a kooky ball of energy whose grey hair and lanky figure resemble Bourdain enough to make them look like brothers, it’s a wonder it took so long for their paths to cross. “He was a hero to me,” Bourdain said. “I had hoped and planned to just do a couple of scenes with the guy, talk about his films, how he looked at Hong Kong, what he looked for there.”
Instead, Doyle zipped around Hong Kong with Bourdain and his crew, talking through his creative philosophy and introducing him to various locals. Ultimately, Doyle took charge of the camerawork — in the show, he arrives late to one restaurant sit-down and forces the team to redo the setup — and served as one of three credited cinematographers. “It was this wonderful, magical sort of kismet,” Bourdain said.
Speaking to the host as they roam the city, Doyle expresses a series of philosophies that resonate with Bourdain’s own. “Our job as artists is to show you the world you think you know and celebrate it,” the camera guru says at one point, later adding, “If we try to be as true as possible to the way we see things, perhaps, perhaps, it translates [and] gives voice to the unspoken.”
The 42-minute episode celebrates Wong and Doyle’s work, but in a broader sense, it feels like a natural extension of Bourdain’s homegrown oeuvre — it’s a lush, riveting overview of Hong Kong’s history, its struggles with gentrification, and multicultural inhabitants. They just happen to be eating great food, too.
Filming Asia With Asia Argento
The episode also points to another new collaborator in Bourdain’s life: Actress and filmmaker Asia Argento, Bourdain’s girlfriend, served as a last-minute director when the original director fell ill. (The couple first met when Argento appeared on the show’s eighth season in 2016.)
It’s a welcome new chapter for Argento, who has spent months contending with being one of several victims of sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein to speak out about it. With the episode airing a week after Weinstein’s courtroom arraignment, Argento declined to be interviewed about her experience on the show, but in an official Q&A posted to CNN’s site, she said she “happily made this leap into the unknown,” and noted that her experience acting in Olivier Assayas’ 2007 Hong Kong thriller “Boarding Gate” prepared her for the challenge of running around the city with a camera. “I felt a kinship with the organized chaos,” she said.
For Bourdain, bringing Argento further into his professional world proved to be a natural extension of their bond. “Look, anytime I can get work out of Asia — even random suggestions, like when she calls me mid-show to make me aware of a Nigerian psychedelic rock scene of the mid-to-late-’70s — that’s a huge help to the show,” he said. “I’d love to have her a continuing director. I just don’t think we can afford her. But, my god, I’d love nothing more than to repeat the experience. She made it incredible.”
Argento’s own work on both sides of the camera tends toward rough, visceral narrative experiences, and her sensibilities prove a natural union with Bourdain, whose baritone voiceover and John Wayne swagger sits at the cross-section of Hong Kong’s evolving identity. From a swift overview of the city’s growth from a fishing village into a global center of urban development, the episode careens through beguiling locations: upscale cantonese eatery Happy Paradise, a grimy punk rock club where he dines with a young band named David Boring, tranquil boat rides, and a Ghanaian restaurant for African refugees.
Doyle frequently usurps Bourdain’s penchant for poetic observations. Considering the impact of construction and rising costs of living for the city’s older population, Doyle asserts, “We can’t change the evolution of history or gentrification — but at least we can see what we’re losing.” He’s joined by filmmaker Jenny Suen, who co-directed “The White Girl” with Doyle last year. Suen’s perspective rescues the episode from the lingering possibility of an Orientalist simplification. In considering the challenges of representing the culture for non-Chinese audiences, she concludes, “The only way is not to be cynical about it.”
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