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From Babette’s Feast to Eat Drink Man Woman, food flicks have been among the recent foreign-language films most importable to the increasingly insular American market. The Chinese Feast, however, may not appeal to upscale gourmets. Broadly satirical, this overstuffed farce approaches China’s classic cuisine more in the spirit of Animal House than Julia Child.
Feast is as frantic as the previous films of director Tsui Hark, whose credits include Peking Opera Blues and Once Upon a Time in China, but it upends the Hong Kong action-film formula. Humor and romance are the focus, while the stylized action sequences emphasize vegetable slicing over swordplay.
Hark, Ng Man-Fai, and Cheng Chung-Tai’s script establishes three interlocking plots: First we meet master chef Liu Kit (Kenny Bee), who must choose between winning a prestigious Beijing cooking competition or rushing to the hospital where his girlfriend has just gone into emergency labor. He stays at the competition, loses his girlfriend, and turns to drink. Meanwhile, Chui Kong Sun (Leslie Cheung) is trying to cheat his way through another cook-off; a small-time Hong Kong gangster, he wants to qualify for a hotel chef’s job in Toronto so he can legally enter Canada, where his girlfriend has emigrated. His ruse fails, so he decides to actually learn to cook and takes a job in a restaurant. There Chui’s incompetence exasperates the owner (Law Ka-Ying) while he befriends the owner’s eccentric daughter, Au Ka Wai (Anita Yuen), a would-be singer with dyed bright-red hair.
Naturally, a crisis arrives that forces the brash young man to apprentice himself to the washed-up master. Challenged to a banquet duel with his restaurant as the stake, the owner must best his rival in preparing a three-day, 100-course meal. Chui and Au head for the mainland to rehabilitate Kit, which means first reuniting him with his long-lost love. Then they bring him to Hong Kong for the competition, which involves such archaic delicacies as bear palm, elephant trunk, and monkey brains.
With its vertiginous angles, fisheye-lens compositions, and high-speed tracking shots, Feast shows Hark’s customary kinetic flair. Between the elaborate set pieces, however, the film uncharacteristically drags. Also, the basic slapstick sequences aside, many of the gags may elude Western viewers. There’s a funny parody of one of the favorite devices of Hark’s former colleague John Woo, in which unarmed cops and thugs prepare for a shootout by retrieving the guns they’ve secreted nearby. (In Hark’s version, the men can’t remember where they hid the guns.) But I missed the joke in a brief takeoff on an earnest Japanese historical film.
Feast will appeal to those interested in all the possible variations on the Hong Kong action movie, but can’t be recommended to those without some grounding in this vigorous genre. Judging from this effort, Hark is better at action films with a comic flair than at comedies with a kung fu twist.
An earnest celebration of such venerable American institutions as the family farm, the oil industry, and armed robbery, The Stars Fell on Henrietta doesn’t have quite the intended effect. Its central character, who prefers to be known only as Mr. Cox, is presumably meant to embody pluck and charm, but he actually seems much more baleful than Philip Railsback’s script lets on.
It’s 1935 and out-of-luck oil wildcatter Cox (Robert Duvall) is about to split from his disgusted partner, the partner’s overheated automobile, and perhaps even Texas when we meet him sputtering down a dusty road with his only friend, a cat named Matilda. While bumming a ride to California, however, he gets the scent of oil in his nostrils again and can go no further than the West Texas town of Henrietta. The bounty, he’s convinced, is on the nearby property of poor farmer Don Day (Aidan Quinn), who Cox offers to take as a partner for a mere $5,000. The nearly bankrupt Don is intrigued, but his sensible wife Cora (Frances Fisher) is not.
Stars provides so much cuteness—in addition to Cox’s mewing Matilda, the Days have three daughters ranging from infancy to adolescence—that its darker side never becomes real. The character of Cox, which reduces Duvall to little more than his dry chuckle, is capable of dishonorable behavior, but the film doesn’t really credit that. And, in failing to acknowledge that its hero is bad news, Stars undercuts the inevitable glad tidings that are apparently supposed to redeem him spiritually as well as financially.