Cook Up a Storm
China/Hong Kong, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 97 mins.
Director: Ye Weimin 叶伟民 [Raymond Yip].
Superbly-tooled foodie film is somewhat slacker on the writing side but still good entertainment.
A city in southern China, the present day. Spring Avenue 春风里, in the city’s old quarter, is the most famous gourmet street in China, and its best restaurant is Seven 七记, owned by veteran chef Hong Qi, aka the King of Flavour (Ge You). Head chef is Hong Qi’s pupil, Gao Tianci (Xie Tingfeng), the son of Macau-based Gao Feng (Huang Qiusheng), the God of Cookery. Thinking his son would never have the talent to become a cook like him, Gao Feng left him with Hong Qi 20 years ago to pursue his own career. One day Gao Tianci and his childhood friend Haidan Mei (Tang Yan), who manages the Seven, hear that a gourmet western restaurant is to open directly opposite. Called Cueillette d’Etoiles, aka Stellar, it has imported young half-Korean, half-Chinese chef Paul Ahn (Jeong Yong-hwa) from France, where he was a three-star Michelin chef working for the Art Nouveau group and catering for European royalty. At Stellar’s opening ceremony, Gao Tianci and Paul Ahn, who earlier met by chance in the city’s fish market, have a spontaneous culinary face-off. Both have entered the International Chef Challenge Competition, hosted by local TV station Southern Breeze, and the winner will compete in Gao Feng’s famous cooking challenge in Macau. The result of the local competition will also affect the city planners’ decision whether to preserve Spring Avenue and the local culture it represents or tear down the old quarter to create an international commercial zone. Lu Meiyou (Bao Bing), Paul Ahn’s Chinese girlfriend and assistant, invites Gao Tianci and Haidan Mei over for a meal at Stellar, though the evening ends with another culinary face-off between the two in Stellar’s kitchen. Paul Ahn contends that Chinese food is too resistant to change, but has to admit that Gao Tianci’s cooking is tasty. At the local competition Paul Ahn’s foie gras just wins over Gao Tianci’s beggar’s chicken, because of its superior plating. But then Stellar’s management decides to have the more photogenic Lu Meiyou represent the restaurant in Macau, not Paul Ahn, who has actually been losing his sense of taste. Feeling betrayed by Stellar and Lu Meiyou, Paul Ahn befriends Gao Tianci and they decide to compete together in Macau, where each of them separately has something to prove.
After a string of horror movies with Taiwan actress Lin Xinru 林心如 [Ruby Lin] – The House That Never Dies 京城81号 (2014) being the best – Hong Kong’s Ye Weimin 叶伟民 [Raymond Yip] ups his game with Cook Up a Storm 决战食神, a superbly tooled, thoroughly enjoyable foodie film that’s his best outing since the pathbreaking road movie Lost on Journey 人在囧途 (2010). Written as usual by his film-making partner, industry veteran Wen Jun 文隽 [Manfred Wong], and, like many of their movies, set in the Mainland, it also gives the increasingly tepid screen career of Hong Kong actor Xie Tingfeng 谢霆锋 [Nicholas Tse] a shot in the arm with his best role since period whodunit The Bullet Vanishes 消失的子弹 (2012).
Though it’s technically a CNY movie celebrating local values, and traditional Chinese cuisine over fancy western stuff, it’s almost a spin-off from Xie’s celebrity cooking-cum-travelogue show Chef Nic 12道锋味, which started in 2014 and just happens to be co-produced by the main force behind Cook, Hong Kong’s Emperor Entertainment. As well as being the star, and playing a super-talented chef, Xie is credited as food supervisor on the film and was presumably responsible for the look of those sequences, succulently directed by Zhang Qing 张清 and photographed in a way that dovetails with the handsome look of the rest of the movie, courtesy Hong Kong d.p. Ye Shaoqi 叶绍麒 (Vulgaria 低俗喜剧, 2012; My Wife Is a Superstar 我老婆係明星, 2016). With its full colours, Cook never looks less than fabulous, and with smooth work by Ye Weimin regulars like editor Ye Wanting 叶婉婷, composer Chen Guorong 陈国荣 [Comfort Chan] and stylist Zhang Shijie 张世杰 [Silver Cheung], the whole production is a super-smooth, quality ride.
The same can’t quite be said for the screenplay, which throws in every bit of formula from son vs longlost father, through local values vs globalism, to Chinese culture vs Korean internationalism, and leaves a trail of unresolved subplots and half-developed characters behind it by the time the film suddenly wraps at 90-odd minutes with a simple, heart-over-ambition conclusion. That unexpected ending – and the absence of star cameos in a CNY movie – is the main surprise of Cook, which otherwise runs along familiar lines. Though it’s technically set somewhere in China, and has a mixed Hong Kong/Mainland cast, the cuisine it celebrates is basically southern, with Foshan, in Guangzhou province, doing duty for the main setting and Macau for the finale.
Hardly a warm screen presence at the best of times, Xie, 36, cuts a likeable figure as the obsessive young chef who believes taste and affordability are the main things, not gizmos and fancy plating, and he convincingly handles the kitchen hardware. However, he has a fabricated rather than natural chemistry with South Korean singer/TV actor Jeong Yong-hwa 정용화 | 郑容和, 27, as his competitor. Popular in China because of his TV dramas and the boyband CNBlue, Jeong makes an okay film debut that mostly requires him to look handsome and intense while those around him get on with the real acting. Veterans Ge You 葛优 and Huang Qiusheng 黄秋生 [Anthony Wong] pop in and out to give the film some ballast, but much of the main going among the mass of supporting roles is by China’s Wang Taili 王太利 and Hong Kong comic Zhan Ruiwen 詹瑞文 [Jim Chim] as the baddies. Though she’s always around in the background, Shanghai-born Tang Yan 唐嫣 (the glamour puss in MBA Partners 梦想合伙人, 2016) is stuck in a character that never comes into her own from behind goofy specs and boring hair, while her compatriot Bai Bing 白冰, who’s been mostly in TV the past couple of years, is tossed away just when her hard-driven, more glam character starts to get interesting.
The Chinese title means “Showdown by the Gods of Cookery”, though in fact the film spends relatively little time on the three competitions featured. Its culinary scenes are also much more rooted in reality and far less showily staged than many in the genre, and the film made only a quietly decent RMB120 million on Mainland release rather than anything more storm-ful. But for all its structural blemishes Cook will do very nicely until the next Chinese foodie film comes along. [Five months later The One 绝世高手2017 was released, directed by Mainland film-maker Lu Zhengyu 卢正雨. The two films have striking similarities in their plots and setting but appear to have been made at the same time. The One was originally to have opened also during Chinese New Year but was subsequently delayed until summer 2017.]
Presented by Emperor Film & Entertainment (Beijing) (CN), Beijing Asian Union Culture Media Investment (CN), Hehe Pictures (CN), Beijing Starlit Film & TV Culture (CN), Wanda Pictures (CN), Black Ant (Shanghai) (CN), Stellar Mega Films (CN), Emperor Entertainment (HK). Produced by Emperor Film & Entertainment (Beijing) (CN), Emperor Entertainment (HK).
Script: Wen Jun [Manfred Wong], Liu Yi, Li Jingling. Photography: Ye Shaoqi. Editing: Ye Wanting, Yu Hongchao. Music: Chen Guorong [Comfort Chan], Xin Weili, Chen Yongjian. Art direction: Yuan Feng. Styling: Zhang Shijie [Silver Cheung]. Sound: Mai Zhi’an, Zeng Jingxiang [Kinson Tsang], Li Zhixiong. Visual effects: Guan Zhuohao, Sai Krishna Rimmalapudi (Digital Domain). Choreography: Zheng Zhihong. Food supervision: Xie Tingfeng [Nicholas Tse]. Food direction: Zhang Qing.
Cast: Xie Tingfeng [Nicholas Tse] (Gao Tianci/Sky), Tang Yan (Haidan Mei/Sea Urchin/Miss Uni), Jeong Yong-hwa (Paul Ahn), Bai Bing (Lu Meiyou/Mayo), Ge You (Hong Qi/Wei Wang/King of Flavour), Huang Qiusheng [Anthony Wong] (Gao Feng/Mountain/Anthony), Du Haitao (Fantuan/Rice Ball), Wang Taili (Li Jiacong), Zhan Ruiwen [Jim Chim] (Dawei Wang/Big Stomach), Wei Shiya (Lin Zishan), Hai Mingwei (Er Yong), Liu Xianda (San Mao), Han Zhi (Hunan driver), Li Xiaochuan (Xiaochuan), Wang Xiaoyi (beer girl), Luo Lan (Zhang, granny), Cai Lan [Chua Lam], Gim Su-jin, Guillaume Galliot, Tan Guofeng [Tam Kwok-fung] (Macau judges), Chen Huan, Chen Bei’er (Macau MCs), Hu Ming (Li, chairman), Yang Lulu (Li’s wife), Li Peize (young Gao Tianci), Wang Yuan (young Haidan Mei).
Release: China, 10 Feb 2017; Hong Kong, 10 Feb 2017.