Midnight Diner (Tony Leung Ka-fai, 2019)

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I am, as I suspect many people are, afflicted with an unquenchable fondness for movies about food. Close-ups of meat sizzling, the sound of tea being poured into a china cup, the crispy crunch of vegetables being chopped, it all triggers some kind of ASMR-like pleasure center deep in the back of my brain. Combine that with a rich environment filled with deep brown wood, dark stone tile, golden light and a tinkling piano score, and I’m sold. Midnight Diner has all of this and more–it’s only lack is any glimpse of the greatest food of them all. But fortunately there’s more than enough cheese in its screenplay to compensate.

Tony Leung Ka-fai is The Other Tony Leung. Not the one who starred in Hard-Boiled and Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, that’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai, but the one who starred in Prison on Fire and Centre Stage and Election. Chiu-wai starred in Bullet in the Head, Ka-fai starred in A Better Tomorrow III. They both starred in Ashes of Time and The Eagle-Shooting Heroes. Chiu-wai is “Little Tony”, Ka-fai is “Big Tony”. Chiu-wai starred a couple of years ago in a movie called See You Tomorrow, about a bartender who helps people deal with various personal problems, structured as a series of short stories packed with an all-star cast. Ka-fai stars in a movie called Midnight Diner which opens this week and is about a chef who helps people deal with various personal problems, structured as a series of short stories packed with an all-star cast. See You Tomorrow was directed by Zhang Jiajia, and was based on his own story, and is dizzyingly fast-paced, zooming forward and backward in time with egregiously orange images, like Speed Racer meets My Blueberry NightsMidnight Diner was directed by Ka-fai himself, and is based on a manga by Yarō Abe that has previously been adapted into a TV series in Japan, Korea and China, as well as two films directed by Joji Matsuoka. It’s as calm and conventional as See You Tomorrow is garish and unexpected.

Leung plays the chef at a diner in Shanghai that is only open from midnight until seven in the morning. It’s called, in the delightfully direct manner of Chinese movie restaurants, “Midnight Diner”. It’s frequented by a variety of more or less normal people, and Leung tells us their stories in narration. Some of the stories are more interesting than others, but only barely so. There’s a boxer who fights with his mom (Elaine Jin) even though they both really love each other. The boxer falls for a nurse who has a daughter in a wheelchair, but his mother interferes (trying only to help, of course). A young executive (Joyce Cheng) panics about the impending arrival of the boy she was too afraid to pursue in high school. Leung’s brother, a local cop, loses his temper sometimes. A young couple from Hunan break up because he wants to make money and go home while she dreams of making it big as a model. A rock star falls in love with a young singer but loses her.

None of it is particularly moving and it’s certainly not original, but it is weirdly comforting to see something this old fashioned. That comfort is only amplified by the rich sensuousness of restaurant set and the cooking scenes. Leung himself very obviously is not doing the cooking (the only time we see a longshot of food preparation is a bit of him cracking an egg, all the other cooking images are close-ups that block the chef’s face), which is kind of funny. And the warmth and closeness of the restaurant are nicely contrasted with the vast neon darkness of the megalopolis at night. Other recent food movies have delivered the same kinds of pleasures, while also managing to tell an interesting story: Ramen Shop‘s exploration of the legacy of World War II in Singapore, for example, or a young woman’s reconciliation with her mother and her life in the city during a year on a farm in Little Forest (in both the two-part Japanese version and the single-feature Korean version). While Leung himself has been outspoken recently in support of the Hong Kong police and against the protestors there, there’s nothing the least bit controversial in Midnight Diner. It’s a conservative movie to be sure, but in the way of the kindly grandpa at the other end of the counter who dresses in tweed and doles out reassuring aphorisms and gently pours you a cup of tea when you’re sad. It’s a nice movie, and it made me very hungry.

SIFF 2018: Dead Pigs (Cathy Yan, 2018)

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As overstuffed with ideas both political and cinematic as any debut feature you’re likely to see this year is Cathy Yan’s film about the intersecting lives of a family in Shanghai and its environs and their war with both capital and the very concept of property itself. Vivian Wu plays a hair salon owner (her employees gleefully begin the day with a self-affirming song and dance) who doesn’t want to sell her family home to a big corporation, which has plans to develop the area it into a giant Spanish-themed apartment complex surrounding a replica of the Sagrada Familia. Her brother is a pig farmer who finds himself over-extended with a local loan shark after he falls for an investment scam and all his pigs die in a mysterious plague that sweeps the city (eventually some 16,000 pigs end up dumped in local waterways). His son is a busboy working in the city who meets and falls for a rich girl who becomes disillusioned with her club life after a car accident. The brother needs money and so tries to get his sister to sell her house, and alternately appeals to his son (who he mistakenly thinks is earning big money with a real job) for help. The sister refuses: the house is hers, the property is a part of herself and she cannot conceive of relinquishing it. The son tries to help, but all he can come up with is scamming cash off of driving by running into their cars with his bicycle.

Yan skips deftly between the stories, and the drama is leavened by a light touch and a great deal of comedy, ably waling the line between maudlin and silly. The satire is pointed, both in the amoral greed of the corporation and the sympathetic unreasonableness of the sister. But it’s also brightly colored (thank God for Chinese cinema, one of the few cinemas in the world that has yet to abandon pink and green and red in favor of gray and teal and orange) and knows how to bring everything together for a musical sequence, Magnolia-style.

Yan, who was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong and Washington DC, went to Princeton and got both an MBA and MFA from NYU, clearly has a unique insight into the contradictions of global capitalism in an ostensibly class-free society. While most of the characters are recognizable types (the sister as a variation on Yuen Qiu’s landlady in Kung Fu Hustle, the brother as an older version of the striving workers of Jia Zhangke’s films, the girl in the city a wealthier version of Shu Qi’s club girl in Millennium Mambo), the one that seems to resonate most for her is an American architect, from rural Minnesota, who finds himself in charge of this massive project on the other side of the world, where he doesn’t speak the language and may not even be qualified for the job. He’s the human face of capital, muddling along just like the rest of us, increasingly aware that things in our world are all out of whack.

SIFF 2017: Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The second feature from director Liu Jian is an animated network-noir that in its amoral glee at the interconnected machinations of crooks and losers recalls early Tarantino, or at least his Korean imitators. A bag of money is stolen and passes through many vicious hands in dingy, bleak sections of a city at night (the pale, grimy animation recalls a hungover Duckman), a world away from the glitzy capitalist paradises of recent Chinese urban rom-coms.

This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)

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One of two romantic comedies that tried and failed to unseat the powerhouse Fast & the Furious 8 at the Chinese box office this past May Day weekend, This Is Not What I Expected opens here on Friday, a week after its counter-part Love Off the Cuff. It’s a totally pleasant film that surfs gently on the charm of its lead actors, recalling at times the softer screwballs of the 1930s, or more exactly the modern imitations of those classics. It’s essentially You’ve Got Mail, but where the two leads secretly communicate not via letters or emails, but through food. Zhou Dongyou, who was exceptional last year in Derek Tsang’s SoulMate, plays a manic pixie who repeatedly runs afoul of aloof billionaire Takeshi Kaneshiro (aging nicely more than 20 years after Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). Kaneshiro is a fastidious foodie, a buyer and seller of hotels who checks into an aging inn somewhere in Shanghai and finds all of the food lacking. Except, that is, for a soup made by Zhou, known to Kaneshiro only as the woman who mistakenly vandalized his truck in an act of revenge for her roommate. Kaneshiro and the chef refuse to meet each other, instead using the peculiar qualities of food to bond.

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