China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 114 mins.
Director: Lu Zhengyu 卢正雨.
Goofy cookery comedy is an impressive step up to the mainstream by online spoofter Lu Zhengyu.
A big city somewhere in China, the present day. Food tycoon Cai (Cai Guoqing), head of Heshan Group 和膳集团, is determined to find the legendary manual Really Tasty Cookery Tips 真好吃烧菜秘笈, which is reputed to make its owner the undisputed King of Cookery. Ambitious Lu Xiaoyu (Lu Zhengyu) searches for it on Cai’s behalf and, following a clue on the internet, he and his friend Xiaotian (Kong Lianshun) stumble on to Decadent Street 堕落街, a colourful, oldstyle district in the middle of the modern city. Dominating it is the restaurant Traditional Snacks King 正宗小吃大王, run by crafty old Yu Mian (Fan Wei). Guessing that Yu Mian has the book, Lu Xiaoyu sends Xiaotian to alert Cai; but Cai doesn’t believe him and orders his men to smash the area up. They’re interrupted first by the appearance of master cook Li Jianguo (Ke Da) and his two assistants, Yongjun (Yang Di) and Mei (Huang Ling), who cook a gourmet meal in the street, and then by the arrival of tomboy Xiaoman (Guo Caijie), the grand-daughter of Yu Mian. When Lu Xiaoyu discovers she possesses the book, he pretends to fall for her – to the delight of Yu Mian, as no man has ever dared go near her. However, none of Lu Xiaoyu’s ruses – including posing as a foreign prince – have any effect on Xiaoman, who refuses to hand over the cookbook. Cai then invites over a legendary Japanese chef, Shinemon (Kurata Yasuaki), who can move faster than the speed of light, to challenge Li Jianguo’s team. At the last moment, Yu Mian intervenes and cooks his legendary Dragon Noodles 玉面一龙斩. Shinemon realises Yu Mian is actually Huang Jierui, who co-invented the Dragon Noodles years ago with his loving partner Tang Mu. Learning that Huang Jierui betrayed her, Lu Xiaoyu decides to track her down. He finds Tang Mu (Chen Chong) working in a funeral home’s restaurant, and that she still loathes Huang Jierui.
Mainland spoofter Lu Zhengyu 卢正雨 makes an impressive step-up into the mainstream with The One 绝世高手2017, a duelling-chefs/cookery comedy in which the jokes, skits and wordplays come thick and fast but which also manages to work on an emotional level. The film has striking parallels in its story and setting with Hong Kong co-production Cook Up a Storm 决战食神 (2017), released five months earlier during Chinese New Year, though the two movies appear to have been made around the same time, with The One also announced as a CNY release but later put back. Though it came out second, and has a nominally less “starry” cast (i.e. no Hong Kongers), The One certainly doesn’t deserve to exist in Storm‘s shadow, and both owe equal debts to classic food comedies like The God of Cookery 食神 (1996) by Zhou Xingchi 周星驰 [Stephen Chow]. The two films are just as smooth on a technical level and The One is actually much funnier and more affecting on a human one. In the Mainland it made a quietly decent RMB101 million, just shy of Storm‘s similar hawl (RMB120 million).
Hunan-born Lu, 33, has consistently worked outside the mainstream, starting to make films in 2004. His first feature, the 78-minute youth film A Hope 莫小白的水怪日记 (literally, “Mo Xiaobai’s Water-Demon Diary”), appeared in 2007 and his second, the naturalistically shot, student road comedy 一只狗的大学时光 (“A Dog’s University Days”), three years later. Meanwhile, he developed an alternative comedy career online, notably via the wildly successful office-comedy series Hip Hop Quartets 嘻哈四重奏 (2008), produced by video-hosting giant Youku and starring himself and Taiwan actress Yang Qingxuan 杨晴瑄, but also via a series of short spoofs on 1960s/70s Hong Kong martial-arts films centred on the character Lu Xiaoyu (“Little Fish Lu”). Lu has used the Chinese and English titles of one of these, the 26-minute The One 绝世高手 (2013, literally “The Peerless Master”), starring himself and Cao Renwei 曹仁伟, for the current feature. Though the two films have no plot similarities, the main character is also called Lu Xiaoyu and again played by Lu himself.
Significantly, Lu entered the mainstream via two of Zhou’s hugely successful films: first as a writer on Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons 西游 降魔篇 (2013), in which he also played a goblin, and then as a writer and executive director on Mermaid 美人鱼 (2016), in which he played the assistant to the mad trillionaire of Deng Chao 邓超. Lu’s blank-faced brand of parody is not a million miles from Zhou’s – though more romantic and without its propensity towards the grotesque – but it’s not really made for supporting roles in other’s films. In The One he’s the star, and it works a treat, with Lu as an ambitious crawler who’s trying to cozy up to the ruthless head of a food empire by locating a rare cookery manual. He finds it in a colourful, traditional district – in the middle of a soulless, modern city – where he becomes involved with a veteran restaurateur with a murky past and his tomboy grand-daughter, resulting in lots of culinary duels.
The jokes come thick and fast from the first minute, starting with a cookery competition for the most disgusting recipe and continuing with parodies and skits – mostly aimed at Mainland audiences but also enjoyable on just a goofy level – hung on a slim storyline of a desperate wannabe finally learning to be a (slightly) better person. Lu starts the transition from exaggerated comedy to a more magical, sentimental tone about 40 minutes in, as the offbeat love story between two outsiders begins to develop. Lu couldn’t have found a better co-star than Taiwan actress Guo Caijie 郭采洁 [Amber Kuo], here in her playful tomboy-with-a-soft-centre mode. It’s nothing new for the petite 31-year-old but she has excellent chemistry with Lu and the two youngsters interact smoothly with veteran comic Fan Wei 范伟, in his element as the crafty old restaurateur.
Casting is strong down the line, with a mass of Mainland personalities and character actors, notably veteran singer-actor Cai Guoqing 蔡国庆 in a rare film role as the tycoon villain, Kong Lianshun 孔连顺 (who played the fat female tourist, in drag, at the start of Mermaid) as the wannabe’s sidekick, writer-performer Ke Da 柯达 terrific as a preening chef-cum-Olympic gymnast (making a very funny entrance at the 18-minute mark), singer Wei Jindong 魏金栋 as a singer in a park, and so on. Veterans Chen Chong 陈冲 [Joan Chen] and Japan’s Kurata Yasuaki 仓田保昭 (last seen as the grizzled old pirate in God of War 荡寇风云, 2017) add some heft to the parade of names as a wrathful ex and a Nipponese cookery king. Chen’s real-life younger daughter, Xu Wenshan 许文珊, 15, smoothly plays her character as a young woman in flashbacks.
Production values are tops, from the large atmospheric set of the district by art director Zhao Xuehao 赵学昊 (Yesterday Once More 谁的青春不迷茫, 2016), through the unusually descriptive score by Peng Fei 彭飞 (Duckweed 乘风破浪, 2017), to the richly textured photography by Cheng Ma Zhiyuan 程马志远 (Duckweed). Overall, the film could take 10 minutes’ trimming, mostly in the final half-hour; the end titles alone last an epic 10 minutes, though do include an Easter Egg for those patient enough to wait.
Presented by C2M Pictures (Shanghai) (CN), C2M Pictures (Ningbo) (CN), Huayi Brothers Pictures (CN), Shanghai Bona Cultural Media (CN), Shanghai Tencent Pictures Cultural Diffusion (CN), Heyi Pictures (CN), Beijing Fun Age Pictures (CN), Tianjin Maoyan Media (CN). Produced by C2M Pictures (Shanghai) (CN), Beijing A Hope Pictures (CN).
Script: Lu Zhengyu, Zhao Yingjun, Leng Xuyang, Guo Xiaodan, Shen Juan. Photography: Cheng Ma Zhiyuan. Editing: Mai Zishan [Marco Mak], Zhou Xiaolin. Music: Peng Fei. Art direction: Zhao Xuehao. Costume design: You You. Sound: Xiao Jing, Chen Zhiwei. Action: Zhuang Yuanzhang. Visual effects: Liu Yi, Fan Xia (Beijing Phenomfilms, Macrograph). Animation: Wang Maomao. Food design: Zhao Bin. Executive direction: Qiu Zhongwei.
Cast: Lu Zhengyu (Lu Xiaoyu/Little Fish), Guo Caijie [Amber Kuo] (Xiaoman), Fan Wei (Yu Mian/Huang Jierui), Chen Chong [Joan Chen] (Tang Mu), Cai Guoqing (Cai), Kong Lianshun (Xiaotian), Huang Ling (Mei), Yang Di (Yongjun), Ke Da (Li Jianguo), Kurata Yasuaki (Shinemon), Ai Lun (noodle-stall owner), Wei Xiang (Long, master), Li Qinqin (Auntie Zhang), Zhao Yingjun (MC), Lu Zhuo (young Huang Jierui), He Landou (Cai’s secretary), Wang Cong (Lu Xiaoyu’s mother), Li Xiaofeng (Cai’s university roommate), Wei Jindong (singer in park), Xu Wenshan (young Tang Mu), Cao Yuchong, Zhang Yukun (Cai’s other university roommates), Sun Lili (Chili Sauce Godmother), Dong Keping (Dong, head judge), Liang Yuqiao, Zhao Xuehao (other judges), Lu Guanda (boy eating noodles), Tong Dongjun, Gu Beilei, Liu Weizheng, Li Wenrui (The Tough Four singing group), Wu Hanyi (Xiaoman’s mother), Ye Zi (Cai’s mother), Lv Yuncong (young Lu Xiaoyu), Yang Suyi (young Xiaoman).
Premiere: Shanghai Film Festival, 22 Jun 2017.
Release: China, 7 Jul 2017.