Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cook Up a Storm plays better as a Chinese New Year movie than one geared to tickle the taste buds (film review)

Movie advertising that comes complete with 
a cutout figure of its star that you can pose with ;D
Cook Up a Storm (Hong Kong-Mainland China, 2017)
- Raymond Yip, director
- Starring: Nicholas Tse, Jung Yong Hwa, Anthony Wong Chau Sang, Ge You, Bai Bing 
As this movie drew to a close, its stars faced the camera and cheerily heaped Chinese New Year greetings on their audience: something I found rather strange since it was released closer to Valentine's Day than the 15th, never mind the 1st, day of Chinese New Year here in Hong Kong (and, from what I understand, Mainland China too).  But upon discovering that Cook Up a Storm was originally intended to be a Chinese New Year movie (only to have its release date postponed by distributors unduly spooked by the seasonal competition), a lot about the film ended up making a lot more sense.
Chief among these is why it is that family and community matters so much to the film's lead character, a motherless fellow whose father (Anthony Wong Chau Sang) effectively abandoned him early on in his life.  Raised by his father's cook buddy (Ge You), whose eponymous Seven eatery functions more or less as the neighborhood canteen/hangout, Sky Ko (played as an adult by Nicholas Tse) grows up to become a super talented cook who's happy to dish up traditionally prepared Chinese food that satisfies the tastes and appetites of the denizens of Spring Avenue -- from Helena Law Lan's grandmotherly character all the way down to a couple of extremely well-fed dogs -- on the one hand, but also gets much out of triumphing in televised cooking competitions on the other.  
Quite a bit has been made of South Korean singer-actor Jung Yong Hwa also starring in this Hong Kong-Mainland China co-production.  But while it certainly is so that the CNBLUE lead vocalist adds no small amount of eye candy to the movie, his dramatic impact is considerably weakened by his being noticeably dubbed when speaking English as well as Cantonese, and his character most definitely being subsidiary to the main plot arc.
To be sure, early on in the offering, it does seem like Cook Up a Storm is meant to primarily involve a series of culinary contests between Sky and Paul Anh, the three Michelin star Korean-Chinese chef played by Jung Yong Hwa who favors innovative Western cooking techniques over old school Chinese methods.  And this especially after Paul and his assistant, Mayo (Bai Bing), are hired to run a super fancy new restaurant located right on the other side of Spring Avenue from the long established but also far less pretentious Seven.      

But the further along we go in the movie (whose Hong Kong roots are apparent in such as a sub-plot involving unethical property developers seeking to replace old neighborhood fixtures with flashier as well as taller buildings), the more it becomes apparent that Sky and Paul are destined to be culinary brothers-in-arms who are more intent on proving their worth to people they want to swallow their insults than anything else.  And Cook Up a Storm's climactic -- and best -- moments involve Sky facing up to, and interacting with, someone who's left quite a bit more impact on his life than Paul had.
Revealingly, although food was involved in that scene, its presentation left a lump in my throat but failed to get my stomach growling.  Actually, if truth be told, none of the often visually impressive gastronomic concoctions in Cook Up a Storm made this foodie all that hungry!  In trying to understand why this was the case, I've come to the conclusion that too often, insufficient time was devoted to showing the food actually being prepared.  Even more crucially, there were too few occasions in the movie when people were shown actually tasting as well as genuinely savoring the dishes set before them!  
My rating for this film: 7.0


Anonymous said...

I have to say that the jook with crispy fish skin made me pretty hungry. But like everything in the movie it goes by pretty fast. But I liked the movie despite its superficiality. Wish they'd taken a bit more time to slow down and let things simmer and develop a bit more.

Anonymous said...

Overall I enjoyed the movie but I do agree with you that the plot is too rushed through. Certain characters and relationships could have developed more and the biggest plot hole is how did Paul taste the beef if he has lost his ability to taste? What I liked about the movie though is it's bromance between the 2 leads and that both had common dreams who works hard to achieve them. Chef Paul is also not made into an arrogant 2nd lead just so that the 1st lead looks good. Contrary to your experience, I went into the movie with an empty stomach and the food in the movie made me real hungry, so I guess that's where the real difference in our experience with the movie lies.LOL.

YTSL said...

Hi --

I'm not a fan of jook/congee in general. It's something I tend to only willingly eat when I'm feeling unwell! Probably the most tempting food item in the movie for me was the wagyu beef -- but I feel like I've seen it prepared in better ways than the ones shown in the film! ;b

Hi Anonymous movie fan --

I actually didn't write that the plot was too rushed but, rather, the way certain scenes were filmed/handled (e.g., I think the food needed to be more lovingly lingered over -- and shown being appreciated -- to appear more appetizing). Lots of things and characters in the movie seemed to be communicated in shorthand though, and consequently felt underdeveloped.

Re the beef: *spoiler warning* Paul only lost his ability to taste salty things. I guess he appreciated the sweetness and juiceness of the beef that Sky prepared. *end spoiler*

And if the food scenes in "Cook Up a Storm" made you hungry: do NOT watch the likes of "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman", "Babette's Feast", "God of Cookery" (that char siu, egg and rice dish...), "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", the two "Midnight Diner" films and even "Still Walking" on an empty stomach! ;b

Unknown said...

can you name the dishes they cooked using the giant grouper?

YTSL said...

Hi Unknown --

Sorry, I can't; this not least since the first and last time I watched "Cook Up a Storm" was more than a year ago!