God of Cookery

Sik San
1996 / 95m - Hong Kong
Action, Comedy, Fantasy
God of Cookery poster

Lik-Chi Lee and Stephen Chow were the golden comedy duo of 90s Hong Kong cinema. They started out with Lee in the director's chair and Chow focusing purely on his acting chops, but Chow's influence behind the camera would continue to grow with each new film they tackled. God of Cookery [Sik San] was one of their final collaborations, and it's also one of their finest. I was a little unsure whether the film would still hold up after all these years, not in the least because of its somewhat iffy production year, but all that worry was for naught.

screencap of God of Cookery [Sik San]

Hong Kong comedy is a rather particular beast, a genre that has been notoriously difficult to sell overseas. It's a pretty big niche for the local market though, and it often complements other genres (like their martial arts cinema), but their purest comedies traditionally didn't travel well. That changed when Chow appeared on the scene. There's something about his delivery and body language that makes his comedy more universal, even when the jokes are very much geared toward Hong Kong audiences. God of Cookery is a perfect example. While some jokes are bound to go over people's heads, Chow's performance is the glue of the film.

Asia loves itself some steamy food porn, but God of Cookery gets its inspiration from a different niche. The late 80s/early 90s saw a significant rise in gambling films, spearheaded by the efforts of Jing Wong. The God of Gamblers became an institution, a weird little cultural oddity that exploded out of nowhere. Stephen Chow himself took on the role before in a comedic take, but here he goes one step further. All the usual traits are still there, only gambling has been replaced with cooking. Being familiar with this blurb of cinematic history gives the film a bit of extra flair (and may explain some of the apparent randomness), but it is by no means a necessity to appreciate the film.

Chow plays himself as the God of Cookery. He's a rather mean and business-driven man who only cares about making money. One day his business partner double-crosses him and leaves him bankrupt and dishonored on the street. When eating at a local food stall he rediscovers his love for food, and together with some local cooks, he invents a new type of meatball. The meatballs are an insane success, which puts Chow back in the game. He still needs to take on his old adversaries if he wants to get his old title back, and they won't back down that easily.

screencap of God of Cookery [Sik San]

Though made in 1996, the film looks surprisingly decent. It was a barren period for Hong Kong cinema, with the upcoming handover casting much doubt over the future of Hong Kong, and films/budgets suffered the consequences. But Chow was a big name and managed to keep himself afloat. The film doesn't look spectacular, but if you like the dynamic camera work and the moody lighting of early 90s Hong Kong cinema you won't be too disappointed with God of Cookery. Just don't expect anything next level from this one.

Not too surprisingly, the soundtrack is by far the most negligible element of the film. It's there, it fills up some of the empty spaces and relieves what would otherwise be awkward silences, but otherwise, it has no real impact on the film. It doesn't give God of Cookery a more unique signature, it doesn't add to the comedy, and it hardly leaves any kind of impression. There are a few exceptions of course (directors like Johnnie To or Kar-wai Wong always made good use of a soundtrack's potential), but Hong Kong cinema never really put much effort into the scores of their films, and God of Cookery never even attempted to make anyone believe differently.

Karen Mok and Man-Tat Ng deserve credit for their parts, they are great additions to the cast and give it their all (Mok specifically, I almost felt bad for her), but like most of Stephen Chow's films, he commands pretty much all the attention. And that's a good thing, as the actual comedy bits are all over the place, and not necessarily all that funny. Add Chow's particular delivery into the mix and suddenly every scene has something to giggle at. Without him there these films wouldn't be half as fun, and with him sharing the director's chair he was finally able to reach his full potential.

screencap of God of Cookery [Sik San]

Structurally, there are very few surprises here, then again, this is a pretty straight-up parody of a well-established Hong Kong genre niche, not the most adventurous cinema to begin with. It also doesn't matter that much, God of Cookery is a comedy of the purest sort, everything is played for laughs, and that's what makes it a great genre effort. Few comedies keep the jokes going until the very end, usually trying to sneak in some misplaced drama in the second half. There's none of that here, instead, you get a goofy Shaolin build-up towards the ultimate cook-off.

God of Cookery is a film for those who have a soft spot for Hong Kong genre cinema, comedy in particular. Stephen Chow has better entry-level films for the uninitiated, but people who like a fun Hong Kong comedy and haven't seen this film yet should really make an effort. The cinematography isn't top notch and the score is forgettable, but the jokes are memorable and Chow's delivery is best in class, making this a 90-minute-long delight. It's a real shame Chow never found a true successor to continue his legacy, because I certainly miss his goofy sense of humor.