For the Muslim Hui community in Qinghai Province, located in northwestern China, a frequent trajectory for adolescents has been to stop their primary schooling in their hometown and apprentice at a noodle restaurant in order to help ease their family’s financial hardships. Such is the narrative of Huo Ning and Gary Shih’s second documentary collaboration (following 2013’s The Forgotten City), which focuses on fourteen-year-old Ma Xiang and his experiences of learning the business of not only noodle-making but also growing up and facing the realities of his new surroundings. While the title Noodle Kid is fitting in this regard, it also shortchanges the film’s primarily poignant and thoughtful tone as it accompanies Xiang in what is very much a coming-of-age period. For though the film includes footage of Xiang aged eleven and twelve at the beginning and conclusion of its runtime, the bulk of it concentrates on Xiang’s life at age fourteen in Qinghai before he leaves for his uncle Ma Yusuf’s noodle restaurant and after his arrival at said restaurant in Henan Province. Simple in its principally observational approach, Noodle Kid is an ultimately affecting work in its narrative handling and representation of Xiang’s emotions, perspective, and growth.
Xiang’s emotions and perspective are made clear throughout the film, be it during observational moments of hanging out or working with his younger brother in their hometown of Hualong County; the semi-scowl that he often wears as he works at his uncle’s restaurant in Pingdingshan City; or through actual interviews in either location while directly addressing the camera. But the film’s strength lies in the relationship between the aforementioned before and after to not only chart but also convey to the viewer Xiang’s growth, which is never forced but instead tangible and even surprising. As simplistic or cliché as it may sound, the film expresses this growth in the way that it nudges the viewer to comparatively recall the before during the after, for it is conveniently divided between Xiang’s life at home living and being raised by his grandparents during the month before he leaves with his uncle and the roughly two-year span of working at his uncle’s restaurant. The comparison is easily invited, given the drastic changes between the two and the abruptness of the changes.
But Xiang himself also invites the comparison through his comportment, particularly with his younger brother. As brothers, the two certainly have a close camaraderie, seen in scenes of them traipsing around the dry landscape of their hometown or snuggling under the covers and joking around before sleeping. But with their father in prison and their grandfather obviously too elderly and preoccupied with other concerns, Xiang is also the inevitable father surrogate to his sibling, demonstrated in scenes of making him practice math calculation, ordering him to help out with a house chore/task, or advising him on being good to and taking care of their grandparents while walking him to school. Yet a disturbing thread that cuts across their camaraderie or pseudo-father-son relationship is the frequency with which Xiang cuffs his brother, either teasingly or as discipline. At the film’s start, it shows footage of Xiang at age twelve recounting how he felt after his parents divorced following an argument that involved his father hitting his mother. While the film never addresses the point, the viewer cannot but help to make a connection between Xiang’s witnessing of his parents’ fight and the startling frequency with which he hits his brother, which could then also be read as his way of venting his frustration over the state of his family life and the burden being placed on him to work in a noodle restaurant in place of continuing his schooling and study of the Quran. Moreover, the explicitly rude manner in which he speaks to and of his aunt, with whom he also lives, also paints Xiang as rather contemptible. As such, one is initially distant from Xiang to care too much for him, let alone follow him to the noodle restaurant to see how he fares there. Both Xiang and the film thus surprise in laying bare the former’s capacity for changes, however burdensome the circumstances may be for him in having to make them.
Marking the film’s as well as Xiang’s shift in narrative is the journey from Qinghai to Henan with his uncle and grandfather. The weight of this emotional and geographical shift for Xiang is made explicitly apparent through the choice to devote an extensive sequence on the length of the journey (by train, by bus, by taxi) and thus the restaurant’s long distance from home, with the film even shooting conversations between Xiang or his uncle and other passengers that are reminiscent of scenes from J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014).
Once the film and Xiang arrive at Pingdingshan City and at the restaurant, the pacing also shifts and most of the sequences maintain an observational stance to immerse the viewer in Xiang’s own immersion into the noodle restaurant business as well as bustling city life. In this regard, the film is quite conventional in tracing the small-fish-in-a-big-pond experience via Xiang, emphasised by establishing shots of the city to help indicate the passing of time. But in a larger sense, the film only gains in emotional tenor and significance on two levels. Within the film, caught between the constant hubbub of restaurant work and limited moments for reflection, while still having one’s hometown adolescence fresh in the mind, the accelerated discarding of that adolescence (further mirrored by his cousin’s case) gives Xiang more dimension and renders palpably the melancholy that accompanies and punctuates the process of growing up. Within film production more broadly, alongside Wang Xuebo’s Knife in the Clear Water (2016) and earlier short works and Ma Yulong’s graduate project Hasang (2015), that Noodle Kid centers on Xiang’s rural-based family in one province and his uncle’s urban-based family in another (not only managing the restaurant but also observing Ramadan, meeting with an imam, going to a mosque, and going on holiday) attests to a growing interest in and concern for varied screen representation of Muslim Hui communities in China.
Noodle Kid is available to viewers in Southern California (excluding San Diego County) from October 8, 2020 at 12pm PT to October 11, 2020 at 11:59pm PT as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.