The God of Cookery
Directors: Stephen Chow, Lee Lik-Chi
Stars: Stephen Chow, Karen Mok, Ng Man-Tat, Vincent Kok, Christy Chung
Stephen Chow plays a character named, well, Stephen Chow, but who better known by his stage name of "The God of Cookery." Even though he is an arrogant bastard, his on-screen persona (he has a successful TV cooking show) has translated into financial success, mainly by planting his mug on every product possible. After actually turing down an offer for endorsing instant noodles made by wily businessman Ng Man-Tat, Ng decides to get revenge by planting a meek wannabe (Vincent Kok) who plants the seeds for Chow's ruin by embarrassing him during an opening of a fast-food joint. Regulated to the streets, Chow finds solace with a Triad boss turned noodle cook named Sister Turkey (Karen Mok under heavy makeup). Working with Turkey, Chow comes up with a recipe for a taste treat known as "exploding pissing beef balls" and sets about to reclaim his empire.
Even with the cult success of TV food programs such as Iron Chef here in the States, food seems to be more of a chore than anything else. Companies advertise that their oven will let you get on with your life faster, pizza shops boast about the speed with which they can deliver (not the taste of the pizza itself), and so on. However, in Hong Kong (as with many other Asian countries), food -- and the rituals of both preparing and eating the dishes -- is held in high regard. The "rice scene" from A Better Tomorrow 2 (where Chow Yun-Fat force feeds a gangster fried rice after he "insults" it by throwing it to the ground) might seems silly to us Yanks, but it's not too far from the truth. Food, in this culture, is something to be enjoyed and savored -- not just devoured. To put this into perspective, the small island of Hong Kong has over 20,000 restaurants. So it makes sense then that Stephen Chow (who had already used folk heroes, movie stars and gambling legends as his inspiration) would turn to a chef for a hero character.
But of course, this being Stephen Chow, he throws all sense out the window. Hong Kong films are known for genre mixing, but Chow's collaborations with Wong Jing must have gone to his head (not necessarily a bad thing in my book). This movie contains elements of old-school kung fu, action, comedy, romance, drama, musicals (Karen Mok breaks into an impromtu number about the glories of Triad life), Eastern mysticism and philosophy, and even Soviet montage ala Eisenstein. All that's missing is some John Woo-style gunplay, which I think Chow would have done if he could have afforded it, and some annoying little kid who can kick a lot of ass (not a big loss).
What holds God of Cookery together is Stephen Chow's performance. Many comedic actors don't get their props, but Chow (who had a background in dramatic work before moving to comedies) literally runs the gamut through the film, from joker to lover to loser and everything in between. Each scene in God of Cookery has a different feel to it, and it is Stephen Chow who forms the glue that holds the movie together as he adpats his character, keeping the core the same but morphing it enough to fit the scene. Not only is he extremely funny (even if his Cantonese is too fast for you to get the verbal jokes, his facial expressions are goofy enough to warrant a laugh), he generates a good deal of pathos as well. In particular, the scene where he eats a bowl of Turkey's "Sorrowful Rice" -- which turns out to be the turning point in the film as he realizes that food, not money, must be his passion -- demonstrates what a talented actor Chow really is, and why I feel this movie deserves at least one viewing from any Hong Kong movie fan.
The God of Cookery represents at once something both uniquely native to the Hong Kong film world with Chow's "moy len tau" style, and something that is quite universal to film goers with a tried and true story about loss and the redemption of love, along with great physical comedy and visuals. The final Iron Chef-style cookoff between Chow and Kok, which mixes cooking with kung fu, is one of the most elaborate and impressive action pieces I've seen in a Hong Kong movie -- quite impressive when you think that normally cooking is not equated with action. Stephen Chow recently made a deal with the US studio Miramax (the same company that brought out many of Jackie Chan's recent movies) to release some of his films to US audiences, and I'm eager to see how American audiences will respond to this film, which is slated to be one of the first releases.
A review of the VCD for this movie can be found here
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This DVD is available for purchase at www.hkflix.com