Midnight Diner (Tony Leung Ka-fai, 2019)

Midnight-Diner-2019-trailer

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.

Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

news020519-1.jpg

Don’t let the title fool you: in fine Hong Kong tradition Chasing the Dragon II has no relation whatsoever to Chasing the Dragon, a 1970s-set crime epic starring Donnie Yen and Andy Lau that came out a couple of years ago. The only thing the two movies have in common is that they’re crime films and that Wong Jing and Jason Kwan (as cinematographer and co-director) are to blame for them. Wild Wild Bunch is set on the eve of the Handover, in 1996, as Louis Koo is sent undercover as a bomb-maker to ensnare kidnapping kingpin The Other Tony Leung. He’s a Hong Kong cop, working in cooperation with the Mainland police, to catch badguys in Macao. Wong Jing has for forty years now made a career out of pandering to the basest pleasures of the genre film fan. He’s the most prolific bottom-feeder in Hong Kong, incorrigible master of cheap, tasteless sensationalist cinema. His comedies are silly and crude, his action films bloody and bombastic. Now finding himself in a new socio-political environment, he seems to be doing his best (such as that is) to appeal to a whole new audience: the Chinese security state.

In broad outlines, the plot of Wild Wild Bunch makes sense: undercover cop keeps getting trapped in suspenseful situations, including bomb diffusing and car chases. And certain moments do stand out: Wong and Kwan have a knack for the hyperbolic image (one of a bad guy dying in a car, metal rod jammed though his head, futilely grasping at a $1,000 bill on the other side of the windshield, is something I haven’t seen before), but almost every scene in the film if looked at with even minimal scrutiny reveals itself to be utter nonsense. My favorite: PRC cops set up a roadblock for escaping bad guys on the wrong side of an intersection, allowing the crooks to simply make a left turn to avoid them. This is the kind of joyous laziness we’ve all come to expect and, if not exactly love, then at least tolerate out of Wong Jing.

In the film’s final moments, spoilers ahead here, though God knows how anyone could spoil a Wong Jing movie, Koo leads Leung across the border, into the arms of the Mainland military, which, despite their ineffectuality at blocking roads, is otherwise vast, powerful and ruthless. This could easily be read as a paean to the PRC’s no-nonsense efficiency (as well as their habit of extraditing people from supposedly autonomous jurisdictions), but there might be something else going on. Because, for all his loucheness, Wong has always been just a bit more clever than he appears. It’s not hard to project Wong himself (and thus the old, weird Hong Kong) onto Tony Leung’s character, a loud, cruel man of greed and familial loyalty, dressed in white, throwing tattered bills in the air in a gesture of joyous release as he raises his arms in surrender to the Mainland cops. The film fades to black and then returns, and instead of the final credits we get a brief series of images scored to what passes these days for Chinese rock music. Leung is escorted out of his prison cell, while we see images of his past, open skies and roller coaster rides, he is taken to the side of a dusty road and executed. And then the credits roll.

Cold War 2 (Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)

2012-cold-war-still-2-1

Picking up right where their 2012 hit film, which featured an all-star cast and swept the Hong Kong Film Awards, left off, Longman Leung and Sunny Luk present another suspenseful tale of corruption and double-dealing in the highest echelons of the Hong Kong police department, its two institutional halves at (cold) war with each other. On the operations side is The Other Tony Leung, a tough man of action, of the “break the law to enforce the law” type valorized in Hong Kong cinema since at least the mid-1980s. On the administrative side is Aaron Kwok, emotionless, calculating and fiercely determined to uphold the letter of the law. The two wage a Crimson Tide-esque battle of wills over a tense hostage situation, in which an Emergency Unit van and its five police officers have been captured by unknown criminals. Kwok wins out and assumes command of the force, and the second half of the film follows his investigation of the terrorists, leading to the arrest of Leung’s own son, played by Rise of the Legend‘s Eddie Peng, as the ringleader. But, in a cliffhanger ending, Peng’s accomplices demand his release: they have now kidnapped Kwok’s wife.

Continue reading Cold War 2 (Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)”