MIDNIGHT DINER (2019) review

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For his feature debut as a director, Tony Leung Ka Fai chose to adapt Yaro Abe’s celebrated manga series Shin’ya Shokudo, from which have already been derived a Japanese TV series in four seasons, two Japanese feature films, a Korean TV series, and a Chinese TV series. The concept here stays the same: a small restaurant, open from midnight to seven in the morning, whose enigmatic but kind chef can cook anything his clients ask for, bringing them solace sometimes without them realizing it. Though the chef (Tony Leung Ka Fai) is central, we follow his clients’ stories – he’s the only connection between them.

Here we witness a failed boxer (Tony Yang) wooing a nurse (Liu Tao) with heavy interference from his eccentric mother (Elaine Jin), a rotund perfume specialist trying to lose weight with the help of a fitness coach (Eddie Peng) before the imminent visit of her teenage crush (Charles Chen), a troubled war vet (Zhang Li) turned beat cop who’s also the chef’s brother, a gifted singer (Jiao Junyan) discovered by one of her peers (Deng Chao) but doomed by a terminal disease, and a young couple from the country (Vision Wei and Zhang Yishang) torn apart by their incompatible aspirations.

This episodic concept is, in itself, more suited for a TV series than for a feature film. The first Japanese film adaptation made its stories revolve around a mysterious urn, providing narrative connective tissue. Leung’s Midnight Diner however, is not much more than five bland short films with bouts of food porn (mouth-watering, but that’s hardly a ground-breaking achievement) providing transition and on-the-nose food metaphors for closure: for example a bittersweet story of young love in uncertain times ends with the girl being served a bittersweet omelette, with the chef explaining that some things are bitter, but also sweet. Mind: blown.

The sense of poetry is bland  (let’s play the guitar in the diner!), there’s dime-store tragedy (the gifted singer who’s diagnosed with a terminal disease just as success is in sight), some slight involuntary hilarity (a heart-breaking revelation is told during a rooftop dinner, at a table that’s revolving), strange casting (60-year old Berg Ng as a boxing champion), pointless cameos (Deng Chao and Eddie Peng’s appearance brings nothing), unbearably soapy songs to drive points home, and a cascade of unearned happy endings. Only old pros Elaine Jin and Stanley Fung (as the old man with a cap, a fixture of the manga and its adaptations) bring a bit of spice to an otherwise undercooked dish – oh look, we can do food metaphors as well.

Long Story Short: A collection of bland, soapy episodes, with food porn for transition and trite food metaphors for conclusions. *

 

 

 

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