As far back as I can remember, the CinemAsia Film Festival has always cared much about food. During the weekend there’s always a food market in its main location, and every night there’s catering of (of course) Asian food at both venues. A good accompaniment to the prominence of food and eating in many an Asian film shown at the fest. This year, the festival’s connection to Asian food was taken even further by a special section in the film programme, called OISHII Asia.
Oishii means ‘delicious’ in Japanese, and the four films in this programme are all about delicious food and their cooks, from Indonesia, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. The programme was raised to prominence within the total programming of the festival by having half of its programme as the opening and closing films of this year’s edition of the festival. The Indonesian food porn film Aruna & Her Palate (2018) opened the festival festively last Tuesday, and the international premiere of The Lady Improper (2019) from Hong Kong closed CinemAsia last night. In between, the South Korean romance Little Forest (2018) and the Japanese period film A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story (2013) were shown. All four films feature female characters who cook and love good food.
Aruna & Her Palate turns out to be a good way to open the festival and start the OISHII programme. It’s a showcase for various kinds of foods of Indonesian cuisine, from several parts of the country, encased in a light-hearted romantic comedy. The main plot is concerned with an investigation into a supposed outbreak of Bird Flu all over Indonesia, but just like Aruna and her chef friend Bono uses this as an excuse to plan a culinary tour of the country, the film is not really concerned with this plot or the government corruption it culminates in.
This keeps things light, fitting the comic tone but also makes the plot machinations feel rather inconsequential and the film as a whole slightly uneven. The real focus is on the food, and the real search is for a specific recipe for nasi goreng. This is where the film and director Edwin shine. While Dian Sastrowardoyo as title character Aruna makes the most of incredulous, hilarious looks directly into the camera, the real stars are the various local dishes that get served up throughout the film, and both the preparation and consumption of them is filmed in mouth-watering fashion.
Little Forest is in some ways a very similar film. Just like Aruna & Her Palate, Little Forest is based on literary source material, which probably explains why just like Aruna, Hye-won directly addresses the audience with descriptions of recipes and food. Hye-Won only does this through voice-over, however. Similarly, the romantic subplot revolves around two women vying for a man’s affection at some point, and the main female character’s relationship to their mother defining at least part of their passion for cooking and good food. Both are feel-good films with a light, comic tone.
But whereas in Aruna & Her Palate everything revolves around the food, its inclusion in Little Forest is more organic and functional. Growing her own food and cooking it is a way for Hye-won to reconnect with her childhood, with her mother and with country living, after trying and failing to make it in Seoul. The food in Little Forest is not just good food for the sake of good food (though it is also that) but also a way of healing and self-discovery.
Self-discovery is also a main theme in A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, the highlight of the programme. In this period drama, a would-be samurai warrior is forced by filial loyalty to become a cook for other samurai, to follow in his father’s footsteps. He’s not a very good cook, however. In comes Haru, a wife he’s made to marry by his father. Haru’s got an excellent palate and skills in the kitchen to match. Through her teaching him to cook, they learn to love each other, to love cooking and how there is just as much honour in making a great meal as there would be in sword fighting and martial arts.
Not only is there honour in cooking, the ritual of serving a delicious meal to the Shogun is rife with political meaning and the way to restore peace and order to a region troubled by succession problems and revolt. Cooking literally becomes a matter of life and death, and a way to save the samurai’s reputation. Which doesn’t mean the film skimps on sumptuous shots of (presumably) delicious dishes, and their expert, loving and skilful preparation. Food porn with a purpose.
The least food porny picture of the programme is the closing film, The Lady Improper by Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan. Partly based on her personal life, The Lady Improper also deals with self- actualisation, though this time by running a restaurant more than by doing the actual cooking. Siu Man, the titular lady, gives up her job as a gynaecology nurse to run her father’s restaurant after he is hospitalized. Unlike in the other three films, she’s not the one doing the actual cooking, that falls to a new hire replacing her father.
What he also does is help her open up sexually. For despite all her clinical knowledge of gynaecology, she is in fact divorced because she refused to have sex with her husband. She now slowly is moving on from her fear of sex, with the help of the passion and cooking by the new chef. Again, cooking is also tied to parents: the chef works for the restaurant because her father’s signature dishes remind him of his mother, while the same dishes represent her father’s repression of her desire to become a cook like him. Which, in a film in which good cooking and good sex are tied together, also informs her sexual repression.
The quite sensual and cinematic The Lady Improper is made up of very well made, good looking sections but never completely gels together as a whole. Too much time is spent on flashbacks to Siu Man’s failed marriage, while atonal shifts to comedic moments don’t always work. The best parts are those that focus on her sexual awakening and on the food, but although they’re supposed to be tied together this isn’t entirely pulled off.