Film Review: André and His Olive Tree (2020)

Man’s universal quest to create often presumes an element of permanence. Nobody conceptualises a building with its eventual collapse in mind. Such is the curse of being mortal: we project our deepest and most unattainable desires onto the material legacies we leave behind.

Not for André Chiang. In 2017, the famed Taiwan-born chef made the call to close down Restaurant André and return its Michelin stars in a decision that stunned the culinary world. It was an announcement preceded by no other, and soon people were scrambling for last-minute reservations before Chiang’s team shut the two-storey shophouse’s blue doors for good.

The decision beggared numerous questions, most contingently: why? Why this and why now? So many people with their noses up against the windows, eyes gleaming at the shelves of accolades many can only dream of, and here this man who has it all—apart from not being “Number 1” yet, that is—is choosing to quietly pack up and walk away.

The events swirling around this decision are captured by Josiah Ng in his new documentary, André and His Olive Tree. Presented in accordance with Chiang’s Octaphilosophy, Ng builds a narrative of Chiang that at once pins the closure decision squarely upon his shoulders, and yet absolves him of the bittersweet aftermath. It’s a success story that upholds traditional notions of success, and yet bucks the ending by leaving it open-ended.

The film opens with the moment Chiang drops the news to his team on October 10, 2017. The date is equally memorable to his wife, Pam, for different reasons. The camera then cuts to a range of reactions: slack-jawed, stoic, teary-eyed. From this moment on, every anecdote, every interview and every decision orbits back to this very announcement. Each directive uttered in the present has the awareness of impending closure pressed into it, like the moment where Chiang urges his service team to press on precisely because they only have so many days left to host returning patrons.

Even when Chiang is captured in the future, post-closure, his actions and expressions are invariably overshadowed by the viewer’s knowledge of the moment he’d discharged the news. He walks free, only because he was once chained. But this is a price Chiang is willing to pay, because his mission for perfection has turned inward. Though a culinary giant seized by an innate, everlasting passion for food, he knows it is the immaterial that will outlive everything else. Not too shabby for someone whose job is to put together things that vanish into bellies in minutes. 

Towards the end, Chiang charges three mentors with his personal growth—amongst them, Singapore, the country he is leaving in search of home. Famously, Singaporean poet Arthur Yap once wrote: “there is no future in nostalgia.” This line rings apropos in a city-state that is always moving, creating, progressing, endangering and demolishing. But the line only spearheads a poem that, eventually, swallows up its own indictment like an ouroboros. In searching for home, Chiang seeks out the future in his past, and finds himself coming full circle.

And yet, even for someone like Chiang who is willing to dismantle with his own hands the institutions that he created, surely there’s an element of permanence to be sought in his legacy? Indeed there is. It’s none other than his olive tree.

Written by Eisabess Chee

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