Skulking around the Hong Kong working class district of Temple Street, disgraced celebrity chef Stephen Chow (er, Stephen Chow Sing-Chi) cuts a forlorn figure as he orders a humble bowl of assorted noodles from an uncouth, hideously disfigured street vendor named Sister Turkey (Karen Mok). Upon criticizing Turkey's noodle dish for its lack of taste, terrible preparation and unsanitary ingredients, Chow suffers a brutal beating from her gang of street thugs. It jolts Chow's mind back to his glory days as 'the God of Cookery' when he had a culinary empire of fifty restaurants. Cocky and arrogant, he treated his staff like dirt and as a judge on his own high-rated cooking show humiliated countless aspiring chefs. Until one day Chow's errant disciple Bull (Vincent Kok Tak-Chiu, who co-directed Forbidden City Cop with Chow) exposed him as a fraud on live TV. In an instant Chow went from multimillionaire superstar to penniless street bum. Back in the present day, Turkey takes pity on Chow and gives him a free bowl of barbecue pork with rice. Moved by her kindness, Chow samples her food and is so blown away by its amazing taste he has an epiphany, revealing how he can fight his way back to the top.
Asian cinema was seemingly gripped by a food fad in the mid-Nineties. Ang Lee charmed the art-house crowd with Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) while Tsui Hark had one of his biggest box-office hits in The Chinese Feast (1995), but the biggest homegrown hit by far was Stephen Chow Sing-Chi's The God of Cookery. By this point Chow was already the biggest name in Cantonese cinema. Every comedian of note has their breakthrough moment but the lucky few (or rather the most ambitious) achieve more than one. All for the Winner (1990) made Chow a comedy star, A Chinese Odyssey (1994) made audiences and critics take him seriously as an actor but The God of Cookery established him as an artist. A true comic auteur along the lines of Jacques Tati, Roberto Benigni or Jerry Lewis. Much like those men Chow remains an acquired taste, tied too closely to the cultural and comic sensibilities of his core audience. Indeed for a period in the Nineties his omnipresence in Hong Kong cinema had him as loathed by many western viewers as he was beloved by the Cantonese. Old school kung fu fans saw Stephen Chow as the death of something rather than a new beginning. In some ways they were right. Chow remains arguably the last true superstar to emerge from Cantonese cinema before its slow decline into parochialism and, some argue, irrelevance (they would be wrong, but whatever). However, The God of Cookery managed to win over Chow's vocal detractors in western HK film fandom. Its quirky combination of inspired slapstick lunacy, Charlie Chaplin-esque pathos and social commentary paved the way for his auteur period including The King of Comedy (1999) and big international hits Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004).
Perhaps taking a little inspiration from Tampopo (1987), where Japanese comic auteur Juzo Itami styled his foodie comedy like a spaghetti western, The God of Cookery employs essentially the same conceit as Shaolin Soccer. It derives humour from applying kung fu cliches to a food movie. Chow includes numerous laugh-out-loud references to classic martial arts films like 18 Bronzemen (1976), Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre (1978) and Louis Cha's seminal wu xia novel Legend of the Condor Heroes, adapted for the screen as The Brave Archer (1977), Ashes of Time (1994) and the comedy Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993). It was around this same time that the Japanese show Iron Chef became an international phenomenon, applying a similar martial arts parody formula to a cooking competition. Chow's film takes this already humourous approach a step further with strikingly choreographed food fu sequences where super-chefs wield superpowers. As when Chow himself weaves ribbons of beaten egg to form Chinese characters like some kind of anime hero. No coincidence given Japanese animation remains one of Chow's chief inspirations. Fetishizing food in mouth-watering detail, the photography here by future director Jingle Ma is among the most accomplished in New Wave era HK cinema.
Chow mines his humour from Cantonese street culture. He embraces its vulgarity, slang, obsession with word-play, gambling, superstition and of course food as metaphor for all aspects of life. Mixing rapid-fire verbal gymnastics with physical tomfoolery, Chow riffs on Cantonese pop culture (comic books, classic songs, triad movies and TV shows: e.g. Turkey's tearful karaoke renditions of old theme tunes) but also satirizes the more venal aspects of Hong Kong's money-mad, status-obsessed society. His onscreen alter-ego is caricature of the archetypal Cantonese wheeler-dealer, the self-made millionaires that sprang up like wildflowers throughout the colonial era. More often than not this new elite showed off their power in the time-honoured tradition by abusing their underlings much as Chow's character does here. At heart The God of Cookery is a morality tale not dissimilar to Michel Hazanavicius' Oscar-winning French comedy The Artist (2011): an arrogant artist falls from grace but finds redemption through a gifted young woman. In the process of falling in love he rediscovers his own artistry. Chow, who has a knack for pairing with feisty leading ladies, has a fine sparring partner in the oft-underrated Karen Mok. Sporting a subtle makeup job that mars her lovely face without a trace of fakery, Mok delivers a barnstorming turn, emoting for all she is worth throughout several unexpectedly moving moments. Interwoven with the slapstick nonsense is a disarmingly heartfelt love story that functions on multiple levels. As the onscreen Stephen Chow labours to overcome his shallowness and discern Turkey's inner beauty, Chow the director puts forth a message that Cantonese culture must recover its humanity from its working class roots. Among an array of inspired comic set-pieces the standout has to be the climax that involves the most O.T.T. cook-off in cinema history. It includes an hilarious strutting cameo from Cantonese cinema icon Nancy Sit who delivers a monologue poking fun at her own well-publicized tabloid troubles. It boils down to food as a metaphor wherein fancy Nouvelle Cuisine proves no match for a simple hearty meal.