Way back in the day, my early education in Hong Kong cinema was more along the lines of guns and hand grenades, as opposed to fists and barrel rolls. Bullet ballets, car chases, crooked cops and machete gangs; I was all over that. It wasn’t until a double bill at a local cinema — Drunken Master II and Hard Boiled, to be precise — that I realised the other side of Cantonese and Mainland action cinema. Since then, I’ve enjoyed many of the classics; but still, I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert, not like HC’s resident chop-socky fan Justin. I only know what I like and it probably doesn’t take much to impress me.
Which is perhaps why I could walk away from Yip Wing Kin’s Kung Fu Chefs feeling that I’d been reasonably entertained; I’m not certain anyone with a more sophisticated palate would have been able to say the same.
Sammo Hung plays Yee, a genius chef and village leader, authoritative but down to earth, a man worthy of the right to wield the Golden Dragon Blade, a mystical cleaver capable of awesome feats of cookery. Yee however has a tragic past which, during an important birthday banquet, inevitably catches up with him. The ensuing mayhem results in betrayal and Yee’s exile from his home.
Meanwhile, Ken’ichi (Vanness Wu) is a young apprentice whose own master has deemed too diamond-in-the-rough to continue training. Ken is sent off in search of his master’s master, who just happens to be the same person Yee comes looking for. Both men more or less converge on Sum’s Restaurant (“Four Seas”, in Chinese), only to find the sought after Master Sum has passed away and his daughter Ching (Cherrie Ying) is now in charge. After some mystical tasting of the house specialty, some fine words of wisdom and a cooking competition which ousts the resident chef, Yee becomes head cook to help out the sisters and Ken assigns himself as the kooky yet promising pupil. Things are fine until the Best Chef in China competition looms, and that’s when Yee’s past finds him again and the knife fights start.
So, it’s a reasonably basic premise. There’s the zen art of cookery, some pretty fantastic looking food, some mean bad guys with blades and there’s some kung fu. What more could you want? Well, unfortunately, the true focus of the film — or what I assume was supposed to be the focus, Ken’s growth from arrogant student to certified master of cookery — wasn’t exactly as involving as it possibly should have been. And that would have been alright, if the conflict between Yee and his older, embittered brother had been more than a token plot device to lend pathos to Sammo’s character and provide a two-dimensional protagonist who possibly hadn’t developed emotionally past the age of thirteen.
It’s kind of like the director and writer looked at all the other films with food and kung fu concepts in them, then used them as a checklist for what they needed to put in this one; consequently there’s no real feeling in this film. It hasn’t been made with the sort of attention to detail and loving care that so obviously goes into the dishes Hung’s Yee describes; you know, the ones that are more metaphor for the Chinese soul than actual food? And the editing, which my movie buddy accurately described as “weird and stupid”, didn’t really help the film’s cause either.
But I did say “reasonably entertained”, didn’t I? I also said “easily impressed” but that’s beside the point. The film as a whole is somewhat sloppy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean scenes at the micro scale don’t work. There’s a great scene in a green grocer for example, where Ching’s sister (tiny Japanese import Kago Ai), redeems her genki and slightly annoying demeanour by starting a fight with the bad guys who are innocently going about their shopping. And any scene involving food and cooking is mouth watering (and a little disturbing for someone not used to all the quirks of Asian cuisine) and beautifully presented. Hung was Hung; he’s great even in a bad film, and it’s still a marvel to watch him do his thing, despite his age and size.
Overall, I can’t say I hated Kung Fu Chefs, but if someone like me, who’s not much of a connoisseur of the genre of kung fu film, can spot its flaws… Well, that’s never a good sign. Director Kin was a fight choreographer, and for that reason, he perhaps should have packed in more fights and done away with the foodie backdrop altogether. I suspect it would have made for a much more exciting film. But then, I suppose he wouldn’t have been able to include the word ‘chefs’ in the title, and maybe all he wanted in the end was someone to cook him a decent meal.