Cook Up a Storm

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/18/17 17:02:49

"The plating is iffy, but the taste is good."
3 stars (Average)

There are certain themes I see in every Hong Kong movie that makes it to America these days, even though it’s kind of simplistic and patronizing to expect the changes in the city and its relationship to the rest of the world - basically, the reason why Hong Kong makes the papers - is going to be the focus of any film made there. For better or worse, it’s part of "Cook Up a Storm", but so is everything else; the filmmakers are cramming about five different food movies into this one. The jumping around makes it kind of hard for any one story to really grab the audience, but there’s something kind of nice about how this allows its small stories to stay small rather than get too caught up in self-importance.

It mostly takes place in two restaurants across from each other on Spring Avenue, which has long been the culinary center of Hong Kong. “Seven”, named for its founder (Ge You), has been there for thirty years, serving Cantonese favorites at their very best. The current head chef is Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse Ting-fung), the nephew Seven took in twenty years ago when his father left to travel the world. “Stellar” just opened across the street; it’s a well-financed gourmet spot where Sino-Korean chef Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa) and his assistant Mayo (Michelle Bai Bing) tend toward European cuisine. It doesn’t take long for Paul & Mayo to rub Sky and his girlfriend Uni (Tiffany Tang Yan), Seven’s manager, the wrong way, which will play out in a number of ways, from impromptu cooking demonstrations to the attempts by Stellar’s owners to redevelop the whole street to a televised competition on “Chef Please”, the winner of which will go to Macau to compete against “God of Cookery” Mountain Ko (Anthony Wong Chau-sang).

My eyebrows raised a bit at what folks were calling Mountain, although it doesn’t seem as though there’s any connection between this and Stephen’s slapstick comedy by that name akin to the way that the recent From Vegas to Macau movies link to the God of Gamblers series; it must just be a common Cantonese phrase. Instead, director Raymond Yip Wai-man and writers Manfred Wong Man-chun, Liu Yi, and Hana Li Jing-ling combine two or three light dramas: There’s the story of a neighborhood institution keeping on in the face of gentrification here, a rival between local traditionalism and international fusion made personal there, a shocking personal betrayal for one chef and a family schism for another. That’s not a bad set of things to have running in parallel, but instead they wind up going in sequence, creating the feeling of jumping around, plots resolved without getting time to simmer, and no feeling of the stories having something similar at their base and being united.

Not stretching each of these storylines out does give a nice cast the opportunity to make a good impression, though. Nicholas Tse’s Sky doesn’t really have a particularly transformational arc, for example, but he gets across the chip that has been on this man’s shoulder ever since his father abandoned him, saying disdainfully that Sky would never be a good cook, but he doesn’t make anger Sky’s base state; there’s a great fondness for food, his neighborhood, and the people in it that smooths a lot of rough edges out. Jung Yong-hwa does the neat trick of making Paul kind of an arrogant jerk without his feeling like an outright villain, enough so that when things get shuffled around a bit later in the movie, his faults can be measured against another character’s and not look so bad, and a turn-around doesn’t seem unbelievable. It’s a shame that the ladies don’t get a whole lot more to do, especially Tiffany Tang: Her job is more or less to be cute as heck and make sure that there’s someone cheering for Sky, but Uni doesn’t really do anything in the story other than point up how just how stuck-up Michelle Bai’s Mayo is. Ge You makes for an immediately reassuring mentor, and Anthony Wong genuinely earns the credit of “Special Appearance” - his God of Cookery absolutely does stride through the movie disdainful of the mortal chefs around him, but he’s also complex and human enough to make a risky choice of climax work when it could easily have failed.

Raymond Yip is also quite good at making sure the right things are highlighted in a scene, right from the opening which has the camera moving just so to shift the attention from the city’s skyscrapers to the far more modest neighborhood buildings where the likes of Sky and Uni live and work, and the understated tension of Seven and Stellar being right across the street from each other also serves as a reminder that Hong Kong is a city with room for both, and that it is indeed at its best when they inform each other. Even the gaudy scenes in Macau avoid becoming tacky or taking on the worst elements of the programs being recreated; Yip knows what he wants to get out of those scenes and creates just enough spectacle.

And, of course, there’s the food. The beautiful, beautiful food, which has moments of being as lusciously, incredibly detailed as what you’ll see in any cooking movie - the final dish created by Mountain Ko is an incredible work of art, with great attention to color and texture throughout. What’s unusually impressive about this food movie, though, is that Yip and company are not necessarily emphasizing the orgasmic quality of eating extraordinary cooking, but also the delight in making and enjoying relatively simple and familiar dishes. There’s a clear fondness for Sky’s practicality even as he is often fascinated by the stranger creations Paul comes up with. The cooking competition semi-final between them is kind of brilliantly constructed to show Paul’s frantic attention to tiny details while Sky uses a gigantic pot such as would be used for bulk preparation. So much of what we see appears not just delicious, but attainable.

They also save one of the most satisfying emotional moments for the end, and while going with it makes me wonder how a lot of the other things that were treated as important at various points in the movie got resolved, it is just about a perfect note to end this movie on. A good aftertaste probably doesn’t rescue a meal the way the right emotion as the credits roll can help a movie, but it certainly makes "Cook Up a Storm" more satisfying than it might have been.

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