The God of Cookery (食神, Stephen Chow, 1996)

Thing about cooking is, you gotta have heart. At least, that’s the main takeaway from Stephen Chow’s 1996 culinary comedy God of Cookery (食神) in which he once again stars as a man who’s become rich and successful exploiting the talents of others but gets a major humbling when his duplicity is exposed by an even more duplicitous, though apparently talented, rival. Only by living among the people and rediscovering the simple joy of ordinary food cooked with love can he regain his true identity as the “God of Cooking”. 

Stephen Chow (Stephen Chow playing a character of the same name but written with different characters) has built up a successful food empire built around himself as a celebrity chef known as the “God of Cooking”. As a popular TV judge on a cooking competition, he makes a point of giving each of the contestants zero points, starting off with words of praise but eventually finding fault with “basic” techniques and even at one point complaining that it doesn’t matter how tasty the dish is because the chef is so ugly it’s made him lose his appetite. Chow treats his employees with total disdain, going so far as making a prospective hire defecate in public in front of a lift in return for a job, while schmoozing with Triads to expand his empire. The Triads, however, are getting fed up with him and have installed a mole in his organisation. Bull Tong (Vincent Kok Tak-chiu) is a talented chef who claims to have trained at the Chinese Culinary School on the mainland. He makes a point of causing public embarrassment to Chow by tearing apart one of his signature dishes at the press launch for the 50th branch of his branded restaurant chain. Chow is exposed as a talentless fraud and thanks to his haughty attitude, his friends abandon him. 

Penniless and destitute, he rocks up at a noodle stall run by Sister “Twin Daggers” Turkey (Karen Mok), critiquing her noodles in the same way Bull had torn apart his. Turkey takes pity on him after he’s beaten up by thugs and accepts him into her mini street gang. It’s Chow who finds an innovate solution to to her turf war with a rival stall holder in inventing the not entirely appetising “Pissing Beef Balls” which prove an instant hit with all who try them, even helping to cure those suffering with anorexia (apparently a widespread problem of the time, at least according to onscreen newspapers). Chow has not, however, lost his cynical streak and wants to get back to the top by opening a nationwide chain of Pissing Beef Ball restaurants, while Bull and the Triads begin to panic about his seemingly unstoppable success. 

Parodying both Tsui Hark’s Chinese Feast from the previous year, and Wong Jing hit God of Gamblers, Chow brings even more of his now familiar slapstick style, turning cookery into a kind of martial art, and even including a brief sequence in which he gets trapped inside the Shaolin Temple and ends up learning some of their patented culinary techniques. As the cynical top chef, Chow stands in for the evils of the age, puffed up on empty capitalism, openly telling his staff to pull dirty restaurant tricks like making the seats small and uncomfortable to increase turnover and filling the drinks with giant ice cubes to keep costs down and encourage guests to order more. Bull Tong, however, goes even further, beating the staff and suggesting they serve greasy, salt-laden dishes like French fries so kids order more soda, ignoring complaints from the chefs that it’s unethical to serve such obviously unhealthy food to children. 

Sister Turkey’s cuisine, by contrast, might not exactly be top table stuff but it makes no pretence of being anything other than it is. Her rival prides himself on using high quality ingredients, even making sure his oil is changed daily, making it plain that your average market hawker (whether he’s telling the truth or not) at least appears to have more concern for his customers than giant restaurant chains do. Turkey’s ordinary barbecue pork and rice dish with a side of egg is the best Chow’s ever tasted because it was made with kindness. He may have been fond of saying that you have to have heart to cook, but it was just one of his soulless catchphrases until he realised it was true. Good food, companionship, love, and a Christmas miracle slowly work their magic until the “God of Cookery” is finally restored thanks to a little celestial intervention, showing the Bull Tongs of the world exactly what they’re missing.


The God of Cookery screens in New York on Feb. 15 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, Frant Gwo, 2019)

Wandering Earth poster 5Chinese cinema has not been as averse to science fiction as some would have it, but it’s true enough that The Wandering Earth (流浪地球, Liúlàng Dìqiú) marks a bold new chapter in its ambitious attempt to take Hollywood on at its own game. Adapting the novel by China’s premier sci-fi author Liu Cixin, Frant Gwo’s third feature is an interesting take on the New Year movie in which new beginnings are sought and families desperately try to reunite to see them in, only this time they do so against the backdrop of impending apocalypse as the universe threatens to swallow us whole.

Far in the future, the vast expansion of the sun will soon consume the Earth. The Wandering Earth project aims to save humanity by attaching jet thrusters to the Earth’s surface to push it out of harm’s way yet this safety measure has also had grave effects on the planet’s climate rendering the surface uninhabitable. 17 years previously, astronaut Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing) left his 4-year-old son behind in the care of his father (Ng Man-tat) to take up a position on the space station intended to safeguard the Earth’s future. Now 21, Liu Qi (Qu Chuxiao) has grown up into a resentful, rebellious young man intent on seeing the surface for himself if only not to be home when Peiqiang finally returns to Earth. A natural disaster, however, leaves him stranded with his adopted teenage sister, Duoduo (Zhao Jinmai), just as the Earth is inconveniently drawn into a fatal collision course with Jupiter.

As much about fatherhood as it is about survival of a species, The Wandering Earth centres itself on the angry figure of Liu Qi who has been forced to live his entire adolescence underground and has come to deeply resent the memory of the father who allowed his sickly mother to die and then abandoned him. Peiqiang, meanwhile, has spent 17 years on the space station solely in order to save his son’s future, dreaming of the day they will finally be reunited. He cares little for his own life and has already spiritually handed the baton on to the next generation whose descendants, he hopes, may finally see a kinder sun rise over a new Earth.

This kind of selflessness is also reflected in the film’s refreshingly globalist outlook in which the world, no longer divided, has learned to act as one in order to combat the extreme threat from its own sun. The resistance may be China led, but depends on common endeavour and personal sacrifice. When a last ditch effort is required, the government cannot order its forces away from their families but can offer them the individual choice to keep fighting for survival, bringing teams from all corners of the Earth together as they descend on Indonesia where there just might be a one in a million chance to strike back at Jupiter and escape its gravitational pull.

Meanwhile, Peiqiang is up still up on the space station all alone and powerless while the annoyingly efficient operating system MOSS attempts to frustrate his efforts to save the Earth in service of its own mission to preserve humanity’s legacy. MOSS has made a series of calculations and given up, but giving up is not a very human trait and Peiqiang won’t do it. He makes impassioned speeches to the French-accented global authorities and ponders the best way to ensure his son’s survival even at the cost of his own but finally can only resist by literally attacking the system in overruling MOSS and acting on his own initiative.

A New Year tale through and through, The Wandering Earth is a celebration of family, togetherness, and home but is careful to dial down the patriotism for an insistence on the importance of mutual cooperation between peoples in order to combat existential threat with the spectre of climate change always on the horizon. The point, however, is that it is important to keep hope alive, if not for yourself then at least for others rather than give in to nihilistic despair. The Wandering Earth, grand and ambitious in scale, marks a new dawn of its own in terms of Chinese blockbuster sci-fi and does so with refreshing positivity as it places its hopes in human solidarity and individual sacrifice over jingoism and self-interest.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly other territories.

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Love on Delivery (破壞之王, Stephen Chow & Lee Lik-Chi, 1994)

Love on Delivery posterBy the standards of ‘90s Hong Kong cinema, early Stephen Chow hit Love on Delivery (破壞之王) might seem refreshingly down to earth but make no mistake this under appreciated romantic comedy gem is as zany as you’d expect from the master of surrealist laugh a minute humour. A curious tale of cultural pollinations, Delivery once again stars Chow as an ineffectual loser trying to impress a girl but this time it’s a battle of wits he ends up winning when he unexpectedly finds himself standing up for “garbage” in the face of arrogant elitism.

The film opens not with its hero, but with judo champion Li (Christy Chung) who finds herself persistently sexually harassed by her slimy dojo leader who is apparently determined to win her because she’s the only woman capable of “throwing him over”. Seeing as his chat up lines are things like “my house is really big and my bed is really comfy come and see”, Li isn’t really interested which is why she ends up kissing in the right place at the right time delivery boy, He (not altogether against his will). He (Stephen Chow) is smitten, but Li has been looking for a “hero”, someone big, strong, and manly who can match her martial arts prowess but also respect her as a human being. Unfortunately, He is a weakling and a coward, as Li discovers when the boss of the dojo interrupts their first “date” and tries to thump He who activates his well honed coward skills and dodges the blow which lands squarely in the middle of Li’s face.

Fearing his romantic dreams have been well and truly shattered, He resolves to become stronger so he can fight back which is how he ends up meeting conman and stall owner “Devilish Muscle Man” (Ng Man Tat) who claims to be the last heir to “Ancient Chinese Boxing” as well as a close friend of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (only he doesn’t like to name drop). Devilish Muscle Man offers to “train” He in the ancient martial arts, for a “small” fee. Though all of Devilsh Muscle Man’s “training” is a sham, He starts to get quite good at it and eventually defeats the dojo boss whilst wearing a giant fluffy Garfield head. However, a new challenger soon enters the arena – a childhood friend of Li’s who went to Japan and has become an “elite” karate champion claims to be the mysterious Garfield head, stealing He’s thunder and Li’s heart along with it! 

Chow may be in a relatively restrained mood, but there are pop-culture references and in jokes galore which eventually culminate in a Hong-Kong vs Japan standoff in which Chow ends up inheriting Devilish Muscle Man’s kung fu persona which saw him fighting in a strange costume inspired by Ultraman (or possibly Chinese Ultraman rip off Inframan). Meanwhile, the big bad – Li’s ex Duan Shui Liu (Ben Lam Kwok-Bun), dresses in an old fashioned Japanese students’ uniform and rails about the “garbage” people of Hong Kong with their “garbage” kung fu which he plans to eradicate through affirming the primacy of karate as the best and only real martial art. He’s first problem is that he actually self identifies as “garbage” – he is only a poor delivery boy working for a tiny cafe which stoops to various scams to trick its customers out of their money and/or complaining and has no real prospects of being able to lift himself out of the gutter despite his new found fighting spirit and commitment to martial arts training. Nevertheless, He decides to own his “garbage” status to stand up for all the other “garbage” people resisting “Japanese imperialism” in the only way he knows how – by using his wits to trick Duan into allowing himself to be defeated.

He, a perpetually “nice guy” who gives away not only his entire wallet but all his clothes to a homeless father, eventually defeats the forces of “elitism” through an acknowledgement of his inferior fire power and an efficient use of the skills he does have to create a confusing atmosphere of chaos which ensures his final victory. A mildly subversive tale of fighting back against “the elite”, Love On Delivery is also a hilarious romantic comedy in which the nice guy gets the girl solely by demonstrating himself brave enough to face defeat with, well if not dignity, perhaps resolve.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Aberdeen (香港仔, Pang Ho-cheung, 2014)

Aberdeen posterFamilies, eh? Too much history, not enough past. In Aberdeen (香港仔), Pang Ho-cheung applies his cheeky magic to the family drama, taking a long hard look at an ordinary collection of “close” relatives each with individual secrets, lies, and hidden insecurities which could destroy the whole at any given second. Fishermen driven ashore by the tyranny of “progress”, these troubled souls will need to decide in which direction to swim – “home” towards sometimes uncertain comforts, or away towards who knows what.

Grandpa Dong (Ng Man-tat), a Taoist priest, lost grandma a long time ago and is now in a relationship with Ta (Carrie Ng), a night club hostess. Dong’s son Tao (Louis Koo Tin-lok), a celebrity motivational speaker, does not entirely approve, feeling that the slightly taboo nature of Ta’s profession tarnishes his own veneer of glamour and may eventually cause him a public image crisis. Meanwhile, Tao’s wife Ceci’s (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) showbiz career is floundering now that she’s no longer as young as she was and she finds herself slipping into the seedier aspects of the business as her manager encourages her to “entertain” wealthy men to secure roles while her friend keeps inviting her to paid “parties”. Dong’s daughter, Wai-ching (Miriam Yeung), is married to a doctor, Yau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai), who unbeknownst to her is involved (unlikely as it seems) in a passionate affair with his nurse (Dada Chan) which she seems to think is more serious than it is.

Dong laments that his family can’t seem to stand being in the same room for more than a few seconds before someone ruins the whole thing with a stupid argument which might be a fairly common phenomenon in many families, but he worries that it’s all down to the fact that his ancestors were fishermen and now they’re paying for the bad karma of having killed all those fish. In fact, bad karma was one of the reasons his dad got him apprenticed to a relative who trained him up to be a Taoist priest so he could atone for generations of sin but it seems like the well ran far too deep.

Each of our protagonists is individually insecure, lacking the confidence that their family members truly accept them. Tao, vain and deeply cynical, doubts his daughter Chloe (Lee Man-kwai), whom he insists on calling “Piggy”, is really his because he thinks she isn’t very pretty and doesn’t fit with his slick, celebrity image. Nevertheless, he does love her deeply and worries that she will suffer in the long term through her lack of looks though this too is partly a self-centred projection stemming from long buried guilt over having bullied another “plain” girl while they were at school. He is also blind to the effect his constant references to Chloe’s supposed plainness are having on his wife, Ceci, who is carrying the scars of longterm insecurity regarding her appearance on top of the difficulties she is facing in her career.

Wai-ching’s problems run a little deeper in that she is convinced her mother stopped loving her after a slightly embarrassing childhood incident. The past literally returns to haunt her in the form of some paper offerings she made to her mother’s spirit which have been mysteriously sent back “return to sender” by the Hong Kong Post Office. Wai-ching’s mental instability seems to be a worry to her husband, but not so much so that he can’t just forget about it when his nurse comes calling with one of her cute little notes announcing that she’s in the mood.

Dong and Yau are in similar positions, each identifying with the figure of a beached whale – all washed up with nowhere else to go. As Dong puts it, as soon as you’re beached a part of you at least has died. Each of the older men has to accept that a choice has already been made and the energy needed to change it is no longer available. Pang allows each of the family members to find some kind of individual resolution, the family seemingly repaired as they chow down on generic fast food without making too much of a fuss, but then their solutions to their issues are paper thin and perhaps the family itself is merely the ribbon that flimsily binds an imperfectly wrapped gift that everyone has to pretend to like to avoid creating a scene. Still, sometimes the wrapping is the best part and it doesn’t do to go peeking inside lest you get a disappointing surprise.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Justice, My Foot! (審死官, Johnnie To, 1992)

Stephen Chow has always been a force of nature but even before making his name as a director in the mid-90s, he contributed his madcap energy to some of the highest grossing movies of the era. Justice, My Foot! (審死官) is very much of the “makes no sense” comedy genre and, directed by Johnnie To for Shaw Brothers, makes great use of the collective propensity for whimsy on offer. Even if not quite managing to keep the momentum going until the closing scenes, Justice, My Foot! succeeds in delivering quick fire (often untranslatable) jokes and period martial arts action sure to keep genre fans happy.

Chow plays unscrupulous lawyer Sung Shih-Chieh who has built himself quite the reputation as a silver tongued advocate, able to talk his clients out of pretty much anything by bamboozling the judges with crazy logic offered at speed. However, his talents have a downside in that he and his wife (Anita Mui) have sadly lost 12 children already which he attributes to a karmic debt for all his finagling. She’s convinced him to retire and move to the country but Sung keeps getting himself involved in other people’s affairs and when his reckless to decision to defend the son of a wealthy man who has caused the death of a pauper in a street fight results in the death of their own infant son, Mrs. Sung has had enough.

That is, until she encounters a series of injustices of her own as a heavily pregnant woman visits her tea shop along with her shady seeming brother. Soon enough the brother tries to convince a random stranger to marry his sister, only to suddenly run off with all of the guy’s money leaving him alone and confused with the mother to be Madame Chou (Carrie Ng). The man gives chase but unfortunately Madam’s Chou’s brother falls off a cliff and creates a whole lot of problems for everyone in the process. Now feeling sorry for a pregnant woman who has been left so completely alone after her own brother tried to sell her and her in-laws murdered her husband, Mrs. Sung changes her mind and convinces her husband to return to the law in defence of this extremely desperate woman.

For a “nonsensical” film, there is actually quite a lot of plot which occasionally becomes hard to follow as it moves freely between set pieces. The jokes come thick and fast and are often of the idiosyncratic Cantonese variety which does not translate particularly well though the delivery helps make up for any lack of understanding. Aside from that Chow packs in as much of his trademark slapstick as possible as he cedes the spotlight to his co-star Anita Mui who provides the martial arts action whilst proving why Mrs. Sung is the more dominant partner. Accordingly there is some typically sexist humour in which Sung is criticised for his “effeminate” cowardice by Mrs. Sung as she dresses him in her clothes, makeup and hairstyle while he escapes. A running joke about two gay servants doesn’t really go anywhere but is actually sort of refreshing in its ordinariness.

Nonsense it may be but there’s a persistent layer of darkness from the throwaway references to the deaths of the Sungs’ children, to the violent punishments inflicted by the court which include both beatings and eye gouging, and then there’s the attempted suicide of Madame Chou apparently gathering enough energy to hang herself from the rafters mere minutes after unexpectedly giving birth in another extended gag. A judicial farce, the film mocks the very idea of justice as the judges are all corrupt noblemen, well known for taking bribes and looking after their own to further their positions. Sung is no better as he plays the system for his own gain, cynically affirming that there is no rule of law and it’s everyman for himself when you live in such an anarchic system. To’s direction is typically ironic with his canted angles and balletic camera even if he is, to a certain extent, playing the Shaw Brothers game. Justice, My Foot! is not a first rate Chow effort, sagging in the middle and getting bogged down in its own manoeuvring, but does bring both the laughs and the punches with a standout performance from Anita Mui to boot.


Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)