The Mad Monk (濟公, Johnnie To, 1993)

mad monk poster“The Mad Monk” sounds like a great name for a creepy ghost, emerging robed and chanting from the shadows to make you fear for your mortal soul. Sadly, The Mad Monk (濟公, Jì Gōng) features only one “ghost”, but it might just be the cutest in cinema history. The second of Johnnie To’s Shaw Brothers collaborations with comedy star Stephen Chow is another wisecracking romp in which Chow revels in his smart alec superiority, settling bets made in heaven and eventually vowing to spread peace and love across the whole world.

Dragon Fighter Lo Han (Stephen Chow) has a low opinion of his fellow celestial beings. He thinks they ought to be taking more of an interest rather than blindly following the rules. Consequently, Lo Has been making all kinds of mischief and the other gods are very annoyed. They’ve appealed to their high arbitrator – the goddess of mercy (Anita Mui). Wisecraking Lo Han first tries to fob the gods off by sending his friend, Tiger Fighter (Ng Man-tat), instead but can’t resist offering a few more words of smugness in his own defence. Nevertheless, the goddess sees something in Lo Han’s argument and, rather than condemn him to a life as an animal, sets him a challenge – go to Earth and change the fates of three people whose destinies are set to remain the same for the next nine lives. Lo Han agrees and the “Mad Monk” is born.

Like Justice, My Foot, Mad Monk is an opportunity for Chow to show off his verbal dexterity with occasional forays into martial arts. Sadly much of the fast and furious dialogue does not translate though Chow’s spirited performance helps to breathe life into the comedy. Slightly less forgivably, To and Chow repeat jokes from the earlier film including one odd, very much of its time sequence in which Chow walks in on two gay men enjoying a banana in the privacy of their own room. Other attempts at long running jokes include Tiger’s metamorphosis into a giant baby which soon becomes tiring but is eventually forgotten.

Lo Han’s mission is to “reform” a prostitute (Maggie Cheung) who enjoys her work too much, a beggar (Anthony Wong ) with social anxiety and low self esteem, and a stone hearted villain (Kirk Wong) intent on inflicting as much evil as possible on the Mad Monk and his cohorts. Whilst living as a mortal, Lo Han is not allowed to use any of his celestial magic, but is given a magic fan which can be used three times a day. The goddess of mercy instructs Lo Han that he is to use his sincerity to convert these dyed in the wool sinners, which he does – descending to Earth in an oddly Christlike fashion, determined to save these lost souls even if he’s doing it for the pleasure of winning a bet more than an altruistic desire to help “troubled” people back onto what he sees as “the right path”.

Like many Shaw Brothers comedies, Mad Monk’s narrative is its least important element. The nonsensical plot races from one random incident to another, glued together with over the top slapstick and the occasional martial arts showdown. By the end, Lo Han has wound up in a monster movie as he tries to stop a giant marauding spirit from destroying the city even though he is running out of time for his personal quest and currently has other pressing concerns. Lo Han’s “sincere” attempts to manipulate his targets into changing their ways may seem as if they fail, but even if the effects will be felt in the next life rather than this one, Lo Han has made difference in the mortal world, albeit not quite the one he expected. Seemingly out of nowhere, Lo Han’s mission seems to have changed him too as he begins extolling the virtues of compassion and insisting on building another paradise to spread peace and love through the world. Like the film itself, it’s a noble cause but one that sadly never hits its mark.


Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2017)

Raymond Yip Wai-man’s Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Juézhàn Shíshén) was scheduled to open at Chinese New Year but eventually found itself delayed and awkwardly repositioned as a Valentine’s Day date movie. Something of a rarity, there is no real romance in Cook up a Storm though it may inspire a post-movie visit to the nearest Chinese restaurant with its deeply felt tribute to classic Chinese cuisine and the raucous social gathering that often goes with it. Yip does his best to throw in as many themes as possible from the familiar tradition vs modernity to fathers and sons and the undue influence to China’s new ruling class who possess extreme wealth but (apparently) no taste. Most of these get somewhat lost in the meandering script which eventually falls into a conventional tournament narrative as two very different chefs face off in the kitchen before realising they have more in common than not.

Laidback young man Sky (Nicholas Tse) has inherited the traditional and extremely popular Seven restaurant in a tiny alleyway as yet untouched by the rest of the city’s lurch towards modernisation but all that is set to change when a Michelin starred Korean/Chinese chef, Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa), is given the opportunity to open a high class restaurant right across the street. Sky is not particularly worried as he knows they aren’t chasing the same clientele but Ahn continues to muscle in on his business from outbidding him at the fish market to blocking the entrance to Seven’s restaurant with fancy customer cars.

Seven and Ahn’s restaurant Stella eventually find themselves rivals in a TV cooking competition where Ahn’s modern take prizing innovation and elaborate presentation is directly contrasted with Sky’s traditional skills but there are other conflicts lurking in the background as Ahn’s corporate backers fuss about the marketing and Sky obsesses over proving himself to his estranged father who is currently the “god of cooking” and a world champion celebrity chef.

Half Korean Ahn honed his skills abroad cooking for European royalty and has never quite “got” Chinese cuisine which he finds stagnant, turned off by its fierce traditionalism. Street cook Sky does not care for Ahn’s “tricks” which distract from the simple purity of the food. Yip is pulled between the two extremes, painting the tiny alleyway as unrealistic for trying to stave off the march of time yet seing something to respect in their fierce defence of their community and way of life which is constantly under threat. Ahn, though originally cold and driven, is not quite the villain he seems as he quite clearly recognises a fellow craftsman in Sky and is willing to extend at least a professional courtesy to him even if he doesn’t immediately leap to his defence. After a number of setbacks and reversals, the two men patch up their differences by coming together to fight a common enemy which represents both future and past in the twin pronged assault of the heartless developers and Sky’s soulless father.

Corporate greed is the film’s central villain as these super rich businessmen continue to ride roughshod over the little guy from refusing to queue for a table to threatening to burn the whole place to the ground if they don’t get their way. Ahn, having accepted their offer to run “his own” restaurant quickly discovers that he is just another short order talent fit to be cast aside when another hotshot rears their head. Caring only for money and status, the restaurant owners have no love for food which, in the film’s terms, is the ultimate betrayal.

Betrayed is the way Sky feels towards his long absent father who skipped town after telling him he had no feeling for cookery leaving him with lingering feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Sky is determined to prove his father’s life philosophy wrong by demonstrating that it is possible to be both successful and a good person. Sadly, only one of these is destined to work out for him (Yip’s vision of the new China is not altogether charitable) but then Sky’s idea of “success” is very different to his father’s and to that of the development wave currently washing over his neighbourhood.

In keeping with the New Year theme food is the main focus and Yip does his best to give the simple art of cooking all of the shine it truly deserves piling visual tricks on top of well choreographed action sequences more akin to a martial arts film than your usual food fiesta. The narrative may be a familiar one, two cooks enter everyone leaves full, but then that’s more or less what is expected from a New Year movie. Inconsequential and somewhat throwaway, Cook up a Storm still manages to pack in enough gentle comedy and tributes to the power of community as found family to make up for its otherwise insubstantial nature.


HK trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)