Film & DVD Review
Leslie Cheung is a young triad wannabe, who also wants to be a chef! He ends up working in a restaurant that is challenged, by an extremely cocky chef, to preparing the Qing Han Banquet, the ultimate feast in cooking, using extremely rare ingredients. However, the only person that he and co-worker Anita Yuen, who is the restaurant owner's daughter, can find that is able to cook such a feast is a retired chef, who has lost all his taste senses. They must help rehabilitate him in time for him to compete in the cooking competition or else they will lose their restaurant.
Hong Kong cinema, like Hollywood, goes through phases of 'in' films. A while ago there was the cooking phase, which for me spawned two classics (that I've seen): The Chinese Feast and God of Cookery starring Stephen Chow. Both are different in style, so no comparison will be made, but The Chinese Feast is another film which should serve Leslie Cheung's memory well.
The story is quite simple and very linear. Leslie Cheung plays Chiu Kong Sun, a young triad loan shark boss, who wants to quit his ways as a loan shark and become a chef so that he can go to Canada to be reunited with his girlfriend. Despite his good desires, he is a poor chef. With the aid of Master Lung (Chiu Man Cheuk), Sun gets a job as the lowest of the low in the kitchen of the Qing Han restaurant. Here he meets the owner's daughter Au Ka Wai (Anita Yuen), who also goes by the name V.V. at times. She is a quirky girl with a highly colourful personality! She works in the restaurant against her wishes, and tries to make her dad angry with her so that he will fire her. However, with the arrival of Sun, she soon finds a new object for her affection.
Meanwhile, a very arrogant chef from the Super Group comes and challenges the Qing Han's owner to a cooking competition. Not any ordinary cooking competition, but the Qing and Han banquet - a feast so difficult to prepare due to all the rare ingredients involved and cooking techniques required, that only a few chefs are actually able to cook it. The wager is made, with the restaurant put up as Au Siu Fung's (the owner) bet. No sooner has the bet been made than all his staff hand in their resignation, as they were given a healthy offer from the Super Group should he win. This shock plays on Au Siu Fung's weak heart, and he becomes wheelchair bound and too weak to take part in the competition. With the competition only a month away, it becomes up to Sun and V.V. to find a chef capable of cooking the Qing and Han banquet.
Their first shot is Master Lung, but he confesses that he is not able to cook the feast, but knows of a man that can. He tells them of Master Kit (Kenny Bee), a retired expert chef, who quit his profession and became a down and out alcoholic when his wife left him because he chose his cooking over her, five years previous. Sun and V.V. track him down, but soon discover that despite knowing and remembering all the cooking actions, his other senses are seriously shot, and he must undergo a serious rehabilitation program if he is ever able to compete for the Qing Han restaurant.
While that is the main plot, there are also several sub-plots to do with the relationships between several of the characters, so there is a little more depth to the story. Being a very linear story with no twists and turns, the film has to rely on the story being good, and everything that is on screen living up to all its potential. For the most part The Chinese Feast succeeds in this. Unfortunately, it is a little slow in getting going. Prior to rewatching it recently, I had originally watched The Chinese Feast about 2-3 years ago, and had a memory of really liking it. With that memory in place I was quite disappointed when I found some of the opening 20 minutes or so to not really be that great. The opening cooking competition, and the one that immediately follows are good, and the latter quite funny, but then it is downhill for a while. Sun's induction in the Qing Han restaurant kitchen just isn't funny. I don't know what it is, but why is it in a lot of Hong Kong films that whenever someone is told something shocking and unexpected that they spontaneously fall over? I just don't get it. Anyway, that and the big fish scene really are just there for fillers, in my opinion.
The film kicks in properly once the Super Group arrive on the scene and the challenge has been made. The laughs are much better, and the cooking scenes are really fantastic to watch. I'll comment more on them later. Now though, I'll comment on the acting. While there are quite a few significant people in this film, there are a couple of stand out performances for me. But first the others. Leslie Cheung is decent as ever in his role. The Chinese Feast will never be regarded as the pinacle of his acting career, but for his character he does the job well enough. Chiu Man Cheuk's role is quite small, and again he does the job alright, although it did sound and look like his voice was dubbed. That I may be wrong with though. The two main secondary characters are V.V.'s father, Au Siu Fung, who I actually found quite annoying for the most part. His attempts to make life hard for Sun just didn't seem realistic for a top chef. However, his sweet 'n' sour pork cooking scene was really good! Lastly there is the head of the Super Group, played by Xiong Xin Xin. He doesn't do much except act all arrogant and cook - and cook well he does!
That brings me to the two stand outs. Firstly there is Kenny Bee as Master Kit. I thought he was great in this role. As a chef, he had the look that he knew what he was doing, but he was even better as the down and out alcoholic. The sort of dazed drunk look that he had on his face for half the time was fantastic! Finally, and for me the best, there is Anita Yuen as V.V. Her character is someone who is full of life and energy, and clearly (as the screen grabs will show) is not afraid to be different and stand out in a crowd. The red hair and face make-up emphasise this quality, but it is Anita Yuen's performance that brings it to life. She's confident and crazy acting, and fits the character perfectly, and once things get serious she does to, and again this is done convincingly. I don't know what it is, but that red hair and green lip stick look really appealed to me, as did the personality and to a degree the look of her other strange make up job! I gotta find me a girl as quirky and lively as that!
All that remains to be discussed now are the cooking scenes. They were an amazing spectacle to behold. I am a crap chef, I know this and admit it freely. But I'm guessing that the actors which we see carry out the cooking (there are no doubles here!) are not pro chefs. Better than me, probably, but not pro. Regardless, the pull a lot of the cooking moves of very convincingly. The cutting of things like the onions can be glossed over, as I know there was a film cut there, but other things like the beef over the fire, and the noodles etc. you see them spinning the ladle thing about, doing this, doing that. I think the standard of the cooking choreography was very comparable to the standard of a good martial arts film. Or to put it another way, if Yuen Wo Ping was a chef, I don't think he would be upset with the cooking choreography displayed. Anyway, you get my point.
Another thing, I wouldn't really watch this film on an empty stomach and, unless you are a particularly good chef, before you have a meal. Why? Well whatever food you prepare it is not likely to look as good as some of the dishes that are shown in the film. My stomach growled in a few places as I was made to feel so hungry. And there is nothing worse than your mouth starting to salivate when you know you are not going to be able to taste any of the food on screen! So credit to the film for making me feel this way!
The Chinese Feast does have a lull patch near the beginning, which is a little unfortunate, but once it gets going I found it to be a highly enjoyable film, and certainly a very welcome change to guns and fighting, not that I don't like those things! I've seen God of Cookery as well, and I would love to see other films which deal with cooking, as there are a few pointers in there for people to pick up! The Chinese Feast is definitely well worth watching.
Audio & Subtitles
There are two audio options for The Chinese Feast: Cantonese or Mandarin stereo. The Cantonese option is in fact a multi-lingual Cantonese and Mandarin soundtrack, whereas the Mandarin is a straight Mandarin dub. I listened to a little of the Mandarin track and found it to be far too bassy, with very little in the high frequency range, making a lot of things sound not right. The Cantonese track was much better balanced as far as pitch goes, with things sounding a lot more natural, although still a little enclosed, if you get what I mean. Volume levels were a little unbalanced in places, with some noises which should have been a little louder (clanging of dishes in the kitchen for example) not standing out as much as they should have. Other than that though, there isn't really that much else you can comment on in a stereo track.
The subtitles are burnt in Chinese and English subs. If you are going to watch this release of the film, then I really hope you have good eye-sight, or a very large TV screen, cause the subs are very small. If this wasn't bad enough, there is no black border or background to the letters. This obviously means that in scenes where the set is bright the subs become very difficult to impossible to read. There were intermittent spelling and grammar errors, but fortunately nothing which renders the subs not understandable. Unfortunately there were also times when the start of the sentence was missing, which did make that part incomprehensible.
The Chinese Feast comes in a roughly 2:1 letterboxed transfer. The print has frequent speckling throughout its entire duration, although only in a couple of places is it quite distracting and noticeable. Detail levels look alright, not too soft, but not overly sharp. Colour levels are good, but would have been a little better had they been more vibrant. There is also a reasonable amount of colour bleeding or glare with bright scenes. The brighter parts of the screen tend to spill a little onto the darker bits, and give a pale tint to the print. Grain levels were reasonably mild throughout.
DVD & Extras
The DVD menu for The Chinese Feast is all in Chinese. There are no extras, just three options which I worked out were for starting the film, chapter selection and language selection. That's it.
As I've stated, I originally watched The Chinese Feast about 3 years ago, and on re-watching it I was a litle disappointed when I found the first 20 mins or so weren't that great. However, the film does pick up significantly, and it becomes a good comedy that will make you yearn for some of the food you see on screen. It is a shame that the DVD isn't that great.
It is also worth noting, that this version of the film is cut. There is a 4 minute fight between Master Lung and the head of the Super Group. Apparently the only release, anywhere, of The Chinese Feast which has this fight in it is the Malaysian release. The subs and picture quality are also meant to be better. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to track down.
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