The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Shiro Tokiwa, 2019)

“Family” – what does it mean? The concept itself has been under examination for some time, at least as far as the “family drama” goes, but Shiro Tokiwa’s The First Supper (最初の晩餐, Saisho no Bansan) has it more positive than most as its somewhat emotionally distant hero begins to piece his back together and rediscover his place within it. He does so largely through the Proustian power of food as his lonely step-mother does her best to unite the family by reviving warm memories of the various meals they shared together. 

Yet, as Rintaro (Junya Maki / Shota Sometani), a Tokyo-based freelance photographer grappling with the art/commerce divide, is insensitively told at his father’s funeral, his is not an “ordinary” family. That would be (partly) because it was a blended one. Rintaro and his sister Miyako (Nana Mori / Erika Toda) were being brought up by their single father, Hitoshi (Masatoshi Nagase), their mother having apparently left the family, before he brought Akiko (Yuki Saito) and her teenage son Shun (Raiku / Yosuke Kubozuka) to live with them. As a grown man, Rintaro still claims not to be able to understand what his father was thinking, why he wanted to start a “new” family by bringing Akiko and Shun into their home, especially as it led to him giving up his lifelong love of mountaineering to get a steady job in a factory. It never seems to occur to him that perhaps his father simply fell in love again and wanted to share his life with a woman who loved him, becoming a father figure to her teenage son in welcoming an expansion to their family. 

There is, perhaps, still a resistance to the entire idea of blended families or even remarriages especially in the more conservative countryside. Dealing with an offensive uncle, Rintaro fires back that this kind of thing is perfectly normal and no kind of issue at all in Tokyo, so he’s not sure what the problem is but it’s clear that there is still a degree of disapproval of Hitoshi and Akiko’s union even 20 years later. Part of that might be to do with the circumstances of their meeting which we later discover had their share of moral ambiguity. That central secret, and the ones which spur off it, is the reason that Rintaro has never quite been able to put his family together, while Miyako, married at a young age and now the mother of two daughters, is experiencing a degree of marital strife with her mild-mannered husband (Shinsuke Kato) who accuses her of cheating with an old classmate at a reunion. 

Akiko stuns them all by abruptly announcing that she’s cancelled the caterers for the wake and is planning to cook herself, serving up a selection of dishes one wouldn’t usually expect at a funeral but which she claims are taken directly from Hitoshi’s will and each reflect a particular memory of their life together as a family. There is a gaping hole, however, in that we don’t see Shun. “Why should he come?” Miyako replies to Rintaro’s questions, “He’s an outsider here”. A rather cold cut-off for a step-brother, even one you haven’t seen in a long time, and a partial negation of the idea of families not bound by blood even if it’s snapped partly out of hurt. 

While Miyako struggles to reconcile herself to her place within her new family and her decision to form it, Rintaro chats on the phone to his sympathetic girlfriend, Rie (Hyunri), who has, perhaps surprisingly, not accompanied him on this emotionally difficult occasion. The problem seems to be, however, that he’s told her not to come even though she’d have liked to be there and it doesn’t seem as if anyone would have objected. An agent ringing him at a spectacularly bad time to tell him he hasn’t won a competition is forced to reveal, in the nicest possible way, that he narrowly lost out because his pictures are “cold”, he has no affection for his subjects and it shows. He remains diffident in his relationship with Rie because he hasn’t worked out this whole family thing for himself and is worried he simply doesn’t know how to fit into one. 

Through re-experiencing his childhood through the meals shared with his father, Rintaro begins to regain a sense of belonging, discovering what it was that lay at the heart of his family drama and why it eventually led to a painful breakup. Before all that, however, they’d been happy. Trying to quell a spat between Miyako and Shun over different kinds of miso soup not long after they moved in, Akiko declares that from now on she’s only making one, “blended”, kind for everyone though the choice is theirs whether or not they choose to eat it. Truths are shared, new understandings are reached, and the family is in some sense restored. Their childhoods explained, Miyako and Rintaro begin see a path forwards towards a happy family life of their own while taking their bittersweet memories with them, no longer burdened by anxious insecurity but strengthened by a new sense of belonging that has nothing to do with blood.


The First Supper screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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.

Someone in the Clouds (真愛神出來, Gary Tseng & Mitch Lin, 2019)

“True love is your own choice, you have to love unconditionally” the cynical fortuneteller at the centre of Someone in the Clouds (真愛神出來, zhēn’ài shén chūlái) is told by Venus herself during an impromptu intervention. Is love fated or a matter of choice? Both, it would seem. At least, that special person might be out there, but you won’t know unless you fully commit. Another in the ongoing series of charming romantic comedies from Taiwan, Someone in the Clouds tackles the divination of love in more ways than one as its romance-averse heroine is forced to look at love from all angles. 

The daughter of a fortune telling family, Hsaio-Pei (Jian Man-shu) makes a living as a tarot reader mostly offering romantic advice to women suffering in love while she herself does not really believe in “the one”. Hsiao-Pei’s cynical, flighty mother declares that the most loveable love letter is a credit card and has been in a constant cycle of failed relationships since divorcing Hsaio-Pei’s father for the crime of working too much. In any case, the drama begins when Hsiao-Pei is spotted by in the subway by cocksure student Chiung-nan (Austin Lin Bo-hong) who tracks her down, walks into her uni tarot club, and wields the cards asking for a date. Not given much opportunity to refuse, Hsiao-Pei goes with it and the two have a beautiful, adolescent romance only for petty insecurities to end up getting in the way. 

According to Venus, all romances begin with “coincidence” but there is no “coincidence” in love. The goddess can guide the way, but the truth, apparently, is that true love is a free choice which is why Venus finds Hsiao-Pei’s mother so particularly annoying seeing as she always backs off when the going gets tough. Thus, Venus guides Chiung-nan to the tarot club for the meet cute, but Hsiao-Pei has to agree to the match. Venus’ parting wisdom is that true love, in a sense, is actually self love in that once you’re happy in yourself and can love unconditionally without expecting anything in return you will find “true love” without even realising it. 

Yet Hsiao-Pei’s path towards such a realisation requires a fair amount of intervention from the increasingly exasperated goddess. A moment of jealousy about some texts from an old girlfriend threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down while Hsiao-Pei relives her climactic moments Sliding Doors style trying to decide what might have been if different things had been said or done. Meanwhile, she continues reading the future for others and “punishing” Chiung-nan by punishing herself in a grim mirror of Venus’ central philosophy. 

Alternatively, as her grandpa claims, all you need to do to be happy is be kind and generous in the knowledge that life is short. This is a life lesson he imparts to Chiung-nan’s buxom cousin, a super popular online glamour model currently engaged to a wealthy Singaporean air steward who was originally taken by the idea of annoying his conservative parents with a surprise marriage to a modern girl but is now waking up to the major implications of his reckless decision. More words of wisdom come from Hsiao-Pei’s friend Panhai who takes a cheating ex back because she feels he needs her, replying to Hsiao-Pei’s criticism that need is not love with the reasoning that not everyone can tell the difference. 

True love is, according to the goddess at least, as simple as deciding to be happy. She can point the way, but in the end it’s up to the individual to claim their right to happiness or dwell in cynical misery for evermore. A whimsical coming-of-age romance, Someone in the Clouds finds that love is fate and free will in equal measure in which there are no “coincidences” only brief moments of transition standing in for destiny. What Hsiao-pei learns is that in order to achieve romantic happiness she’ll have to put her cards on the table for someone else to read while resolving to accept another interpretation in order to make a “free” choice with the spirit of kindness and generosity which allows her to forgive both herself and others. 


Someone in the Clouds was screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)