It wouldn’t be Lunar New Year if reigning QOBO (Queen of the Box Office) Sammi Cheng didn’t take her usual stab at box office supremacy. The 2004 entry: Magic Kitchen, produced by those ultra-commercial mavens at Media Asia, and directed by long-lost Lost and Found director Lee Chi-Ngai. The film boasts an eclectic supporting cast, including Maggie Q, Nicola Cheung, Stephen Fung, Daniel Wu, both the Beast Cops (Anthony Wong and Michael Wong), and usual Sammi Cheng co-star Andy Lau. However, the male lead is Jerry Yan of Taiwanese pop juggernaut F4, a curious choice given his obvious big-screen inexperience and lack of Cantonese fluency. But, when you consider the fact that Jerry Yan and Sammi Cheng are both spokespersons for Pepsi, it all suddenly makes sense. Once again, marketing shows us the way!
Cheng is Yau Murong, a talented chef who runs a private kitchen for a select clientele. She never wanted to be a chef, but found the occupation thrust upon her when her mother (Sheila Chan in flashbacks) died, leaving her private kitchen behind. As a result, Yau now runs the place with her assistant Ho (Jerry Yan). Business is brisk, thanks to the regular clients and Yau’s purported genius with the dishes she makes. However, unlike her mother, Yau has no passion for cooking, and is indeed averse to it. Her childhood is a jumbled assortment of memories all circling around her mother’s love of cooking and the mysterious absence of her father, who Yau barely remembers.
Yau’s life has another complication. There’s a supposed family curse which prevents the women from ever getting it on with the right guy. The biggest illustration of this curse is Yau’s ill-fated relationship with Chun Yao (Andy Lau, in a rare supporting role). The two were once hot-and-heavy, but were never able to consummate their affair thanks to a variety of only-in-the-movies circumstances. Yau is still stuck on Chun Yao, which creates problems when Chun Yao shows up in her present, and attached to Yau’s friend May (Maggie Q), no less. Yau is also acutely aware that Ho has a huge crush on her. She recognizes that Ho’s a great guy despite being three years her junior, but she’s nervous about getting it on with him. Ho has no such compunctions, and dotes on Yau like your average lovestruck dope. He’s also a budding chef, and wants Yau to compete in King Chef , a Japanese Iron Chef -like TV-show. Yau doesn’t want to compete because she fears she will not be able to come up with recipes on the fly. Eventually, Yau must come to terms with her issues with men, cooking, and above all her relationship with her parents. And all in an hour and forty-five minutes.
Calling Magic Kitchen overstuffed could be an understatement, though it doesn’t appear that way at first. The film is basically about one woman and her minor struggles to find love, happiness, etc., but for some reason the film contains more complicated characters and relationships than your average soap opera. Yau has issues with men and cooking, is involved in a love triangle, has friend issues with pals May and Kwai (Nicola Cheung), and still has time to mess with a couple of hot guys (Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung), and even fend off a possible creepy admirer (Anthony Wong) who might be following her. However, the film possesses a light, sophisticated feel, so nothing that ugly or sordid ever happens. The Hong Kong of Magic Kitchen is a yuppie paradise with trendy bars, cool restaurants, hip urban fashions, and cute guys who make eyes at Yau everywhere she goes. As a production, Magic Kitchen feels sophisticated and upscale, and the prettiness of all the actors is a great selling point too. Add to this director Lee Chi-Ngai (Lost and Found, Dr. Mack), and you have what could be the most attractively-packaged commercial film of the year.
Which is why it’s such a disappointment when the film ultimately seems manufactured and even shallow. Magic Kitchen is rife with many, many character details, but nothing about the details seems to exist as more than a direction from the script. For example, Yau has a private admiration for May, but that knowledge seems to have little bearing on what happens in the film. Likewise, the musings on male/female relationships, and Yau’s own personal issues with romancing Ho are verbalized and explained in a tired manner. Unfortunately, much of the film’s character detail is related in copious voiceover from Yau and not through any telling acting or character interaction. We end up learning a lot about everyone in the film, but the information hardly seems useful. When everything about the film, up to and including the characters’ emotions, gets explained verbally, it just isn’t engaging. It’s like listening to an audiobook, except we get to see Sammi Cheng, Andy Lau and Jerry Yan running around onscreen.
Such attention to detail is not unusual in a film from Lee Chi-Ngai. Lost and Found also possessed copious, and even intrusive voiceover, but it also had a lyrical, even magical vibe which spoke volumes without actually using words. A large part of that was probably Takeshi Kaneshiro, who brought a lovable, delightfully hopeful character to life onscreen. Magic Kitchen could have used that kind of sympathetic character, but the closest it has is Ho, who’s played with doe-eyed cuddlieness by Jerry Yan. Yan is dubbed into Cantonese, which is part of his problem, but the other part is he’s simply not that charismatic an actor, and his character is edgeless and soft. His chemistry with Sammi Cheng is nonexistent, which doesn’t help the film either. Given the plot setup, we’re supposed to root for Yau and Ho, but their coupling generates zero heat.
On the plus side of things, Andy Lau turns in a charismatic performance as Chun Yao, and some of the other supporting players are fun to have around. But it still doesn’t add up to much. The various plot threads of Magic Kitchen float around for a good ninety minutes until they get resolved quickly and efficiently. The fates of the characters are doled out believably, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to matter. That’s the biggest problem with Magic Kitchen: the characters, despite the effort and pages of script used to flesh them out, never really seem to be worth caring about. In Sammi Cheng’s case, that’s both frustrating and surprising. Cheng’s strength has typically been her winning emotions, which usually means an automatic slam dunk for any film featuring Hong Kong’s go-to golden girl. But thanks to Magic Kitchen‘s onslaught of exposition and predominantly canned emotions, Cheng seems reduced to being just a pretty face.
What we’re left with is the usual commercial film conceits: pretty people, nice locations, and a pleasant, non-threatening time at the movies. Magic Kitchen hands all that out in spades, which probably means that enough people went home happy to give the film winner word-of-mouth. But the fact that the film is colorless and non-challenging basically reduces it to a forgettable time at the movies. Even the cooking, which could have lifted the film above also-ran drama status, is largely forgettable. It’s criminal for a film called Magic Kitchen to not give cooking and eating a more vital role, but that’s just what happens here. Despite verbal testimony to Yau’s sensual cooking abilities, none of that sensuality ever makes it to the screen. When Yau finally cuts loose with her cooking magic , the results look promising, but then there’s a big verbalized moment between Yau and Ho, effectively burying any and all magic beneath even more exposition. There are simply too many words here. Magic Kitchen will send you home hungry, but not because it was so appetizing. It just isn’t filling. (Kozo 2004)