The dueling chefs in The Chinese Feast are like performers in a culinary circus. They juggle their knives and cleavers with casual artistry; they slice and dice fruits and vegetables into fanciful shapes undreamed of by the think-tankers at Ronco; they move among woks and ladles billowing with flame as if they were wizards out of Tolkien. They possess such ethereal skills as to make other chefs look like they should stick to slopping the hogs.
But much of the run-up to the movie's extended climax — preparing the Chinese feast — is clumsy. Hong Kong kung-fu film director Tsui Hark (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ng Man-Fai and Ceng Chung-Tai) has an unfortunate taste for slapstick, and he as is bad at filming it as he is at writing it. The worst riff, with a man-size, patently fake fish that escapes a restaurant's kitchen and mechanically flops about the dining room before crashing through a window and into an open manhole, nearly wrecks the film.
The Chinese feast itself — a cook-off with gorgeous imperial trappings — finally fixes Hark's serious attention. The movie steadies and gathers real momentum. The feast sequence succeeds in combining visual splendor, love of food, and simple drama into a fluid narrative that washes away the sour aftertaste of the film's first two-thirds.
The heart of the movie is food and the ancient culture that's grown around it. As in Like Water for Chocolate, food holds redemptive, if not magical, powers. People lose their way when they become detached from food, and they rediscover themselves through it. In one of the movie's sweetest, truest scenes, two long-separated lovers reconnect over bowls of plain homemade soup. Neither one of them has cooked for years, but cooking is like riding a bicycle: You never really forget how. Making the soup and eating it evokes the happier world in which they'd once known one another.
The movie begins, as it ends, with a cooking competition — this one before a group of food apparatchiks in Beijing. The seasoned master is Liu Kit (Kenny Bee), who faces a challenge from a younger chef, Lung Kwan Bo (Zhao Wen-Zhou). The judges prefer Lung's rice to Liu's, but Liu recovers with a brilliant sculpturing of frozen tofu. Then an urgent message from the hospital interrupts the competition: Liu's lover is giving birth to their child. He hesitates just long enough to lose both the cook-off and his new family: By the time he reaches the hospital, his lover has disappeared with the baby, leaving behind only a letter in which she accuses him of caring more about his career than about her and the child.
Years pass. While Liu disappears into alcoholic disgrace, Lung becomes a chef in Hong Kong. There he meets a young loan shark, Chui Kong Sun (Leslie Cheung), who's trying to become a cook so he can emigrate to Canada, where his girlfriend lives. On Lung's recommendation, Sun goes to work at Ding Han Restaurant — an establishment so zany that his disastrous lack of skills is scarcely noticeable.
Contributing mightily to the kitchen madness is Au Ka Wai (Anita Yuen), the red-haired punk daughter of the place's control-freak owner, Au Siu Fung (Law Kar-Ying). Father and daughter screech and hiss at one another like two cats disputing a favorite sofa; between Sun and Wai the dynamic is altogether more romantic.
But the mutual interest of the two young people is merely a sideshow. Enter the evil chef (Xin Xin Xiong), whose shaved head and fiendish smile make him look like a villain from a James Bond movie. He challenges Fung to an imperial feast — preparing more than a hundred dishes over three days. If Fung wins, the evil chef will pay him $50 million. If he loses, the evil chef takes over the restaurant. Prudence would suggest that Fung decline the challenge, but in a food culture the matter is one of honor, and Fung accepts.
The only difficulty is that no one at the restaurant knows how to prepare the feast. Fung consults with his friend Lung, who tells him that only one man — the long-lost Liu — can pull it off. Sun and Wai, in a search replete with clownishly bad slapstick, turn him up in a tiny apartment festooned with porn.
Liu's culinary rehabilitation is like something out of Rocky. He rides the exercise bike, because a chef must be able to stand for long periods. And his five senses must be sharpened, because great cooking is not a matter of following recipes but paying attention to the sight, sound, feel, smell, and taste of food as it's prepared. Sun and Wai put him through the paces, even as their own romance blooms. As incentive, they reunite him with his old lover, who's become a real-estate baron.
The great showdown takes place in a large hall draped with rich tapestries. In the heat of a competition as intense as any in the world of sport, extraneous details — of sappy, pallid romance and lowbrow physical comedy — melt away. For all the wobbliness of the screenplay, it ends up in the right place: with two wildly gifted chefs trying to top one another.
The deciding dish is monkey brains — not something that's likely to appear on the menu of the average Chinese restaurant. Other odd dishes include bear's paw flambe and braised elephant trunk. There's a certain glory in the frugality of a cuisine that makes creative, even royal, use of marginal parts from unlikely animals, but even so, Western eyes cannot help but be slightly distressed at the sight of a polar bear's skinned paw being thrown into a flaming wok.
Is it sentimental to feel that way? If so, then much of our environmental and preservationist politics is sentimental. The world might indeed be a poorer place if all its elephants were shot for ivory and food, if all its polar bears disappeared into soups and stir-fries, but most people's day-to-day lives wouldn't be affected. The loss would be psychic — an understanding that man in his careless dominion over the planet had inflicted yet another irreversible change.
Tsui Hark is sentimental, too — about people, especially those in couples. But then, people aren't really the stars of The Chinese Feast. Food is the star, and Hark treats it with the same passion as do the chefs in his movie.
The Chinese Feast runs through Sept. 5 at theRed Vic in