Friday, February 27, 2009

Kung Fu Chefs (Gong Fu Chu Shen / 功夫厨神)

I guess it's only Chinese that we can include everything that moves into our gastronomical cuisine, and for films, everything can be kung-fu-ed. From card sharks to period dramas and even basketball, hip-hop and mah-jong, you can slap some characters who are versed in the martial arts of wire-fu into a story, and conjure some bland cinematic magic with it. To boost attendance numbers, throw in a singer / teen idol in it, and you probably won't go too wrong. Kung Fu Chefs follow this tired formula. While there are some limited worthy moments in the film (to be explained), it's below mediocre throughout with uncharismatic leads, weak characters, and having a story which smelt like another.

If Hong Kong movies are running out of steam in coming out with original tales, then this one would be testament that there's some thumbing through of some South Korean screenplays, given some resemblance here to the K-movie of last year - Le Grand Chef, and how that film had some influence over this one. You have a disgraced master in Sammo Hung's Master Wong, a culinary expert and village chief, who fell from grace given a village-wide food poisoning incident. Then there's some unresolved family rivalry, where his nephew (played by Fan Siu-Wong, last seen in Ip Man as a villain as well) accuses Wong of usurping his father's pride as well as a legendary chopper which is quite nicely designed with its dragon-motif handle.

The best bits of the film were actually food related, with some insights, which I hope are real, into the careful planning and preparation of some wonderful Chinese cuisine, from the humble Chinese cabbage, to the renowned Buddha Jumps Over The Wall. I took some delight in the display of skill during the preparation stage, and drooled over the final products ready for the table. Which means of course you should not be watching this (if you've already thought hard and long about it) on an empty stomach. The Best of Chefs competition also harked back to Le Grand Chef, only less grand, and a limited budget meant less screen participants and dishes.

I've watched Sammo Hung in some great Hong Kong action movies in the past, especially those that he did in collaboration with his buddies like Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Of late the movies he got involved in were hits and misses, from starring roles such as SPL (hit, except for the ending which I disliked) and Fatal Move, which was a terrible miss. Behind the scenes he's also involved in some action choreography like the forgettable Once Upon a Time in China and America, and the last one being the excellently choreographed action in Ip Man.

Here his role as Master Wong Bing-Yi is extremely plain, maintaining a stoic outlook throughout, whether betrayed, elated or angry, it's just one look to rule them all. While I had admired his agility (for his size), age has already caught up with the big guy, and there are plenty of noticeable scenes where you can clearly tell a stuntman's clearly taking over some of the rough and tumble behind those action sequences.

Vanness Wu as the Japanese wire-fu and culinary graduate student Ken-ichi, is painful to watch no thanks to the act-cute antics, and seemed more interested in flexing some new found muscles in his buffed body. Moreover, his arrogant screen attitude also was somewhat difficult to bear, if not for the about turn in character during the crucial competition. But his cute antics was bowled over by yet another worse actress Kago Ai, who shows one emotion throughout - the saccharine sweet. It seems like a running competition amongst everyone here to best all the rest through a single expression. The other actress given top billing here, Cherrie Ying, is actually quite pedestrian.

I was quite surprised when past the 70 minute mark the film had started to opt for jarring narrative edits in order to fast forward plot development, not that it had anything cerebral to begin with. And seriously, what's up with that tacky opening credit scene too? I'd swear there was a baby in the theatre who started crying the minute that scene came out. Unless you're a fan of Hung and Wu (you can hear those fan girl giggles ringing in surround sound in the cinema), you should give this a miss unless you're in just to watch how food of the elite nature get prepared. See only, cannot eat, so why torture yourself?

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