Monday, March 5, 2007

Review of God of Cookery

In God of Cookery (1996) Stephen Chow plays a self-proclaimed grandmaster of culinary skills brought low by his hilarious hubris only to return to power by recapturing his passion and art in its most humble form: street vending. The formula is pure cookie-cutter (I warn: there will probably be more puns to come), but Chow succeeds at upsetting the obvious by making full use of his chef motif and stirring everything in with his usual manic kung-fu insanity.

Despite the grammatically suspect subtitles and absence of text translations on the version viewed, I felt this was Chow’s funniest work. For me the physical comedy and gratuitous hyperbole work best without the obtrusive aid of computer graphics. Chow must resort to more creative techniques to get his shockingly over-the-top effects, and often their low-budget transparency (like using good, old creative editing) provides a charm with its own comedic value. Since God of Cookery aims much of its parody at television and the already exaggerated antics of shows like Iron Chef or fast-food commercials, Chow is forced to find new extremes using the same medium and available techniques as his targets.

The challenge manages to find him milking his character’s outrageous personality and hijacking the kinetic action of kung-fu flicks, the spontaneous music and heightened emotions of melodrama and even the incongruous sanctimony of religion. The result is quite often witty, absurd and highly inspired. One scene, in which a judge reacts to sampling two rival dishes, first shows a rapid triply-repeated zoom (a staple of Hong Kong cinema, here used with eye-winking irony) of the judge crying out, “Good!” with an ecstatic expression. Ever willing to one-up himself even after his most superlative exaggerations, the second taste elicits a split-screened, superimposed montage of orgasmic delight including a shot of the judge rolling across a mattress-size slab of pork.

Where Stephen Chow tends to go wrong for me is in the departments of character and structure. The characters seem to have been handed one physical characteristic and one personality trait apiece and they are never called upon except to elicit the same audience reaction.

Structurally, doing away with “straight” moments that might have balanced (if done well) or leavened (if poorly) the cartoon fun, makes it difficult to sympathize, understand or believe in the characters and story. While this isn’t a requisite for enjoying most of the jokes, it would provide a grounding to contrast the absurdity against. When events or behaviors become totally random it bypasses the natural excitement of the unpredictable and becomes arbitrary, lacking impact because there are no rules, logic or motivation. This is a complaint that becomes even more relevant in Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle.

Overall, God of Cookery is a giddy and unrestrained treat with laughs pulled from the most unexpected places. Its creativity should be celebrated as much as its sheer wackiness, despite of (and occasionally because of) its lack of artistic and narrative rigor.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

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