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)

Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Chen Kaige, 1993)

farewell-my-concubine-1993
French DVD cover

Review of Chen Kaige’s 1993 masterpiece Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬, Bàwáng Bié Jī) first published by UK Anime Network.


“Why does the concubine have to die?” Spanning 53 years of turbulent, mid twentieth century history, Farewell My Concubine is often regarded as the masterpiece of fifth generation director Chen Kaige and one of the films which finally brought Chinese cinema to global attention in the early 1990s. Neatly framing the famous Peking Opera as a symbol of its nation’s soul, the film centres on two young actors who find themselves at the mercy of forces far beyond their control.

Beginning in 1924, Douzi (later Cheng Dieyi) is sold to an acting troupe by his prostitute mother who can no longer care for him. The life in the theatre company is hard – the boys are taught the difficult skills necessary for performing the traditional art form through “physical reinforcement” where beatings and torturous treatment are the norm. Douzi is shunned by the other boys because of his haughty attitude and place of birth but eventually finds a friend in Shitou (later Duan Xiaolou) who would finally become the king to his concubine and a lifelong companion, for good or ill.

Time moves on and the pair become two of the foremost performers of their roles in their generation much in demand by fans of the Opera. However, personal and political events eventually intervene as Xiaolou decides to take a wife, Juxian – formerly a prostitute, and shortly after the Japanese reach the city. Coerced by various forces, Dieyi makes the decision to perform for the Japanese but Xiaolou refuses. After the Japanese have been defeated Dieyi is tried as a traitor though both Xiaolou and Juxian come to his rescue. The pair run in to trouble again during the civil war, but worse is to come during the “Cultural Revolution” in which the ancient art of Peking Opera itself is denounced as a bourgeois distraction and its practitioners forced into a very public self criticism conducted in full costume with their precious props burned in front of them. It’s not just artifice which goes up in smoke either as the two are browbeaten into betraying each other’s deepest, darkest secrets.

Farewell My Concubine is a story of tragic betrayal. Dieyi, placed in the role of the concubine without very much say in the matter, is betrayed by everyone at every turn. Abandoned by his mother, more or less prostituted by the theatre company who knowingly send him to an important man who molests him after a performance and then expect him to undergo the same thing again as a grown man when an important patron of the arts comes to visit, rejected by Xiaolou when he decides to marry a prostitute and periodically retires from the opera, and finally betrayed by having his “scandalous” secret revealed in the middle of a public square. He’s a diva and a narcissist, selfish in the extreme, but he lives only for his art, naively ignorant of all political concerns.

Dieyi doesn’t just perform Peking Opera, he lives it. His world is one of grand emotions and an unreal romanticism. Xiaolou by contrast is much more pragmatic, he just wants to do his job and live quietly. On the other hand, Xiaolou refuses to perform for the Japanese (the correct decision in the long run), and has a fierce temper and ironic personality which often get him into just as much trouble as Dieyi’s affected persona. The two are as bound and as powerless as the King and the Concubine, each doomed and unable to save each other from the inevitable suffering dealt them by the historical circumstances of their era.

The climax of the opera Farewell My Concubine comes as the once powerful king is finally defeated and forced to flee with only his noble steed left beside him. He begs his beloved concubine to run to sanctuary but such is her love for him that she refuses and eventually commits suicide so that the king can escape unburdened by worry for her safety. Dieyi’s tragedy is that he lives the role of the concubine in real life. Unlike Xiaolou, his romanticism (and a not insignificant amount of opium) cloud his view of the world as it really is.

It’s not difficult to read Dieyi as a cipher for his nation which has also placed an ideal above the practical demands of real living people with individual emotions of their own. Farewell My Concubine ran into several problems with the Chinese censors who objected not only to the (actually quite subtle) homosexual themes, but also to the way China’s recent history was depicted. Later scenes including one involving a suicide in 1977, not to mention the sheer absurd horror of the Cultural Revolution are all things the censors would rather not acknowledge as events which took place after the birth of the glorious communist utopia but Farewell My Concubine is one of the first attempts to examine such a traumatic history with a detached eye.

Casting Peking Opera as the soul of China, Farewell My Concubine is the story of a nation betraying itself. Close to the end when Dieyi is asked about the new communist operas he says he finds them unconvincing and hollow in comparison to the opulence and grand emotions of the classical works. Something has been shed in this abnegation of self that sees the modern state attempting to erase its true nature by corrupting its very heart. Full of tragic inevitability and residual anger over the unacknowledged past, Farewell My Concubine is both a romantic melodrama of unrequited love and also a lament for an ancient culture seemingly intent on destroying itself from the ground up.


Farewell My Concubine is released on blu-ray in the UK by BFI on 21st March 2016.

Original US trailer (with annoying voice over):