For a while there in the early 2000s Sammi Cheng was one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong cinema. Every year brought about another high profile romantic comedy, more often than not pairing Cheng with superstar Andy Lau. While their biggest hits seemed to be with director Johnnie To in films such as Needing You and Love on a Diet, they also co-starred in a number of other comedies including Magic Kitchen. This 2004 release was directed by Lee Chi-ngai and based on the popular novel by Hong Kong author Lam Wing-sum.
Cheng plays Yau Mo-yung, a talented chef and owner of her own private kitchen. Private kitchens are a curious Hong Kong artefact, in which independent chefs set up very small restaurants inside their own living rooms. These restaurants, which often serve outstanding food, can only accommodate a few diners at a time. Mo-yung is unlucky in love, suffering from what her mother told her was a family curse that prevents the women in their family from finding happiness. When an ex-boyfriend (Andy Lau) comes back into her life, she angsts over pursuing him again – all the while overlooked the desperate affections coming from her kitchen assistant Ho (Taiwanese pop star Jerry Yan.)
Anybody who has seen a single Hong Kong rom-com will already know what they will discover in this film. It’s a melodramatic chain of angst-ridden encounters and conversations, focused on the dilemma over whether the protagonist will declare her love for one suitor or the other. Mo-yung is, as is the fashion of this genre, near-crippled with self doubt. She was raised by a single mother who coped with the departure of her husband by cooking extensive Chinese banquets that never got eaten. As an adult Mo-yung has adapted her mother’s own recipes for use in her private kitchen, and as a result feels like an imposter and fraud for not coming up with the recipes herself. She is also terrified of dating any men because of the curse apparently placed on her family generations ago by a disgruntled suitor. That last part seems rather silly when it’s introduced into the film, and certainly by the mid-point the film seems to have forgotten about it altogether. It makes a return at the film’s climax, just in time for it to be neatly resolved and put away. I am uncertain if it needed to be there in the first place.
Much of the film is taken up with extensive riffs on popular American TV series Sex and the City, with Mo-yung and her friends May (Maggie Q) and Kwai (Nicola Cheung) meeting up at a local bar to discuss their love lives and the relative merits of dating multiple men at the same time. Before long the relationships in the film begin to grow overly complicated, with women dating other women’s boyfriends, and getting upset with one another, and admitting their respective infidelities. To be honest it all gets just a little bit tiresome. At the centre is Mo-yung’s much more straightforward romantic story: should she return to the suave, playboy-like Yao or take a chance with the younger but enthused chef Ho?
It’s a fairly charismatic cast all round, with Cheng and Lau falling into a comfortable repartee as romantic leads. They have a strong, easy-going chemistry that tends to lift up even the most moribund of screenplays. The supporting cast play their roles well, although it’s hard not to notice that Maggie Q has been over-dubbed by another actor. As if often the case with Chinese New Year comedies the film is filled with star cameos and guest appearances, including Anthony Wong, Daniel Wu and a few others. It turns much of the film into an actor recognition game.
Magic Kitchen is not going to top many people’s lists of favourite films, and it has a tendency to be a little too complicated and over-stocked with subplots, but it has a pleasant heart and is headlined by some very watchable performances. Like the servings from Mo-yung’s restaurant, it is pure comfort food. It’s a little funny, it’s a little dramatic, and occasionally it becomes a little bit satisfying as well.