American International Pictures in general, and Roger Corman in particular, were infamous for coming up with movie titles and poster art before coming up with a script. This meant that they often ended up with a film that had precious little to do with the title or promo material — promising Frankenstein in a movie that didn’t have Frankenstein in it, stuff like that. It was classic “movie maker as carnival barker” hucksterism, and I admire the approach as much as I bemoan the number of times it’s hornswaggled me into watching something I might otherwise have passed by. With that said, it’s refreshing to come across a movie who’s title exactly reflects the content of the film to which it’s attached. In fact, in the case of low-rent Hong Kong action comedy Kung Fu Chefs, the title is not only a true and accurate description of the film’s contents; it’s basically the entirety of the plot. There are guys who are chefs, and they do kungfu.
One of those guys is Sammo Hung. I assume that Sammo needs no introduction, but I assume that because I’m an old Hong Kong cinema obsessive, or at least I was until round about 2001, when all the stars I loved started getting old and were replaced by really boring pop idol types appearing in really uninteresting movies. Sammo was one of the building blocks of the Hong Kong new wave, and even more than Jackie Chan, it was Sammo who introduced the world to the sort of hard-hitting, eye-popping, lightning fast action choreography that helped define Hong Kong cinema in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. And he did it all while being a big fat guy with a staggeringly consistent procession of terrible haircuts.
Well, we’re decades past that heady belle epoque, and Sammo is turning sixty soon. He’s not as fast or agile as he used to be, nor can he take the type of beatings his style of choreography used to demand of him and everyone around him (the idea to make sure someone’s foot was covered in dust or powder so you could see that the fighters were actually making contact during fight scenes was his). Of course, he’s still a big fat guy, and he still has a terrible haircut (though it’ among his better ones, relatively speaking), and even if his star has faded a bit in his native Hong Kong, those of us elsewhere who cut our teeth on the Hong Kong films of days gone by still revere him as Big Brother Big, and for us, he still cranks out the occasional movie.
Kung Fu Chefs is the sort of low-budget quickie Sammo himself has said he’s not all that interested in doing at this stage in his life. Unfortunately, he has three sons who are all trying to break into the film business, and “we’ll give you a part if you get your dad to show up in our movie” tends to come up a lot. So Sammo keeps cranking out low budget films in order to keep his sons working. In fact, one of them shows up in this movie, long enough for his real-life dad to beat the crap out of him.
Sammo plays Wong Bing-ying, a master chef and village chief who is framed by his vengeance-minded nephew, Joe (Fan Siu-Wong, from The Story of Ricky). Joe blames Wong for the disappearance of Joe’s father/Wong’s brother (Leung Siu-Lung — that’s Bruce Leung to you and me), who was drunk and shamed one night long ago when he and Sammo squabbled over ownership of a near-mythical chef’s knife. If you can’t roll with that as a concept, then you are definitely in the wrong movie. And probably at the wrong website.
After Joe sabotages a wedding banquet with the help of an accomplice (Sammo’s son, Timmy Hung — professional tip one: if you want to succeed as an actor, reconsider “Timmy”), Sammo is forced to leave the village in disgrace. He ends up at a restaurant owned by two sisters played by Cherrie Ying Choi-Yi (from Fulltime Killer) and Ai Kago (a Japanese pop star and former member of the Logan’s Run-esque eternally youthful supergroup Morning Misume). At the same time, a hoshot young kungfu student named Ken (Vanness Wu — we’ll talk about that name in a moment) arrives, after having been sent out into the world to broaden his cooking skills. In this movie, cooking and kungfu are interchangeable, and no one practices one without practicing the other. Sammo challenges the resident chef to a duel, choosing the mysterious hipster Ken as his makeshift assistant, and the two soon become the top chefs of the restaurant. This doesn’t sit well with deposed Chef Tin, who seeks employment at the restaurant’s number one competitor — which just happens to be run by Joe.
There have been a number of “cooking as kungfu” movies from Hong Kong over the years, with the first big one being 1995’s Chinese Feast directed by Tsui Hark and starring Anita Yuen and Leslie Cheung. That was gave a passing nod to kungfu films, but it was much more an attempt to make a Chinese Tampopo. As food culture became more mainstream, there were bound to be more movies about it, and given the intense training and dedication of master chefs, coupling cooking with the martial arts was pretty much a given.
Such films went ballistic in 1996, when Stephen Chow directed and starred in the box office smash God of Cookery. In that, the relationship between cooking and kungfu was even more explicit than Chinese Feast, creating a genre I refer to as “kung food.” Over a decade after the fact, we get Kungfu Chefs, a movie that takes the relationship even further by basically taking the script for any of a thousand old kungfu films and just searching and replacing “kungfu” with “cooking.” Disgraced masters, cocky young protege, esoteric styles, training sequences, dueling schools, and of course, a big tournament at the end — the exact same ingredients go into this movie as went into so many old kungfu films.
As parody of both cooking and kungfu films, Kung Fu Chefs manages to be more entertaining than not, despite possessing a host of drawbacks. This movie feels like something that would have been cranked out in the early 1990s, during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, when everyone was so insane and energetic and flush with triad money that pretty much any old piece of crap could get made and become moderately successful. There was a glut of hastily assembled Hong Kong action films from that era that all played basically the same: broad acting, sloppy editing, numerous continuity and editing gaffes, cheesy synth score, and usually some spectacular action sequences that redeemed the whole mess. Apart from Sammo being older, if you told me Kung Fu Chefs was a product of that era, I would believe you. It has all the same elements, right down to the typo-riddled subtitles and awkward edits where music and dialogue is unceremoniously cut off in the transition to the ext scene, as were common in the slapdash productions of the late 80s and early 90s. If Cynthia Khan or Yukari Oshima had showed up at some point, the illusion would have been complete.
Kung Fu Chefs also has the same sort of half-assed script that characterized low-budget Hong Kong films from twenty years ago, full of hackneyed dialogue, jarring transitions, and scenes that just make no sense at all — like the one where Ken and Ying (Ai Kago) are locked in a deep freeze while a fight to free them rages outside. When Sammo is victorious, and finally procures the key to unlock the freezer in which his two proteges must be on the very edge of death, everyone stops for a leisurely conversation and some hand-shaking before, we assume, letting the two youngsters out of the freezer (we have to assume, because it’s never actually shown). On top of the bad writing and dialogue is the fact that this is basically the same plot as God of Cookery and Chinese Feast, both of which were considerably funnier than Kung Fu Chefs.
Also reminiscent of the worst of Hong Kong in the early 90s is some of the acting. Sammo is Sammo, of course, and while he seems at best moderately engaged by this film, he’s too much of an old pro not to turn in a decent performance. Bruce Leung, who has been enjoying an unexpected but very welcome career resurgence since appearing in Kung Fu Hustle as a guy who can inflate his neck like a frog, only has a cameo role, but one of his two scenes is a fight with Sammo, and that was just awesome.
Cherrie Ying barely registers as the older sister, but Ai Kago more than makes up for it by turning in a performance as the younger sister that is best described as “like a shrill, manic pixie on cocaine and helium.” It’s all squeaking, screaming, pouting, and wild gesticulating. Trying to match her step for step, with a totally comic-booky “I’m EVIL!!!!!” performance, is Fan Siu-wong, fondly remembered by cult movie fans for the time he punched a man’s eyeball out in the hilariously over-the-top Story of Ricky. Here, he’s all nonstop shouting, eye-bulging, and sneering. But where Ai’s performance could be seen as a parody in that it is every bit as annoying as the old performances it parodies (and I’m not convinced she was consciously trying to parody anything), Siu-wong’s over-the-top scenery chewing generally works as broad comedy (the only kind of comedy Hong Kong seems to appreciate).
Vanness Wu, who should have hired a consultant before picking his English name, is considerably more laid back than his inevitable romantic interest in this film, but he still does plenty of juvenile mugging in the vein of Jackie Chan back in the day. A while back, I had a long email conversation with Dave Tomas, proprietor of Steamed Prawn Buns, about the current generation of disappointing pretty boy action stars he dubbed “the hair farmers,” on account of their being more concerned with awesome hair than any actual martial arts or acting skills. We made particular fun of Vanness Wu, since he apparently liked the Western name Vanessa and assumed dropping the “a” equated to the masculine form of the name. I can’t think of any other explanation for such an inexplicable name choice.
Anyway, I wasn’t a fan, thinking him largely untalented, overly pouty, and yes, way too into the pretty boy routine. Despite his hamming it up in this movie, though, he kind of won me over a little, at least enough for me to think that he might have a future as something more than a forgettable boy toy model. Some actual acting talent, decent performance in the action scenes, and even charisma tempered with a self-deprecating willingness to be a total goofball made him charming. He was giving off a bit of a Takeshi Kaneshiro vibe this time around, though maybe I only think that because he had the same scrubby facial hair as Kaneshiro did in Red Cliff. He even handles himself well in the more demanding fight choreography, which is better than can be said for most of his hair farmer brethren.
Like I said, the otherwise crappy low-budget action films of the 1990s were often saved by their undeniable energy and over-the-top action scenes, and just as Kung Fu Chefs has all the flaws of such a film, it also has their redeeming strengths. The fight scenes are actually pretty good, and unlike the greater portion of modern kungfu films from anywhere in the world, it eschews CGI trickery in favor of old school choreography, with a few late 90s wire tricks thrown in to make sure Sammo can hop up onto those platforms. Grocery stores, restaurants, storage warehouses, and loading docks were, as you know, invented solely because they would serve as awesome locations for kungfu fights, and what precious little plot there is to Kung Fu Chefs is tailor made for making sure a fight does indeed occur at least once in each of these locations. Choreographed by the venerable Yuen clan, the action in Kung Fu Chefs may not raise the bar or shift the paradigm, but it does throw us back into a time when stars and stuntmen were willing to put some effort into the action, instead of just depending on the computer to move them around. It’s more complex and more physically demanding than anything we’ve seen in quite a while.
Similarly, there’s an undeniable glee in the films many cooking scenes, and it all comes together to lend Kung Fu Chefs an amiable sort of charm. It may not be fine cuisine, but it’s definitely easy-to-eat, disposable fast food. And the one thing it does lack that many 90s films had was an uncomfortable mean streak. Many were the times back int he day we’d be cruising along with a perfectly acceptable Hong Kong action or comedy film, only to have everything interrupted by some nightmarish rape or a woman getting her uterus cut out and shoved into her husband’s face or something. Kung Fu Chefs thankfully comes in a post-Wong Jing world, so we can kick back and relax. This movie is harmless, good-natured fluff from beginning to end.
If you are looking for a sign that Hong Kong is lifting itself out of the abyss its film industry collapsed into in the early days of the new millennium, Kung Fu Chefs is not the sign for which you are questing. It’s cheap, shoddy, sloppy, and generally idiotic. But it’s not lazy, it’s not mean-spirited, and it’s not lethargic. This isn’t the kind of movie that will turn someone into a Hong Kong movie fan, but if you’ve been one for a long time, and you remember the old days of renting VHS tapes from the local Chinese grocery store and sifting through all sorts of goofy junk while boiling your bag of frozen pot stickers, then you might, like me, find a movie worth enjoying amid all this nonsense.