Kitchen (1997)

Written & directed by: Yim Ho
Producers: Yim Ho & Morishige Akira
Starring: Tomita Yasuko, Jordan Chan, Law Kar-Ying, Karen Mok, May Law & Lau Siu-Ming

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1998:
Best Supporting Actor (Law Kar-Ying)
Best Original Song: "I Love Kitchen"
Music: Dai Yau Leung Ying
Lyrics: Cheng Kwok-Kong
Performer: Cass Phang

Climbing into a shell of numbness after her grandmother's death, Aggie (Tomita Yasuko - The Christ Of Nanjing) is being looked after by hairdresser Louie (Jordan Chan) who had the grandmother as his customer and by Louie's transsexual mother Emma (Law Kar-Ying). Slowly gaining strength and will again, Aggie will eventually have to be equal up to the task of providing support for her caretakers. For Louie who feels he's putting on an image for girlfriends such as Jenny (Karen Mok) and for Emma who's grieving past losses while searching for love in her life again...

Fresh off massive international acclaim for The Day The Sun Turned Cold (Best Director Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival) and The Sun Has Ears (shared directing prize at the Berlin International Film Festival), Yim Ho tackled Banana Yoshimoto's hugely popular 1988 novel Kitchen. Reportedly veering away quite substantially from the structure of the novel, it doesn't seem like Yim Ho ultimately got much of a critical backlash. From a section of devotees of Banana Yoshimoto's perhaps but as someone lazy enough not to compare the written and the filmed, I go with the sensibility of written vs. film will always come with controversy. You can never please everyone and adaptations require work to translate to film. But familiarizing yourself with the beats of Banana Yoshimoto's novel should set you up enough to spot differences in Yim Ho's vision. Differences of the better, alluring kind? I know it's alluring anyway.

So the setting is moved to Hong Kong, names and character occupations have been replaced while the first person perspective from the novel now comes more from Jordan Chan's Louie BUT... a 100 page novel that was hailed for its brief but affecting nature is logically translated into a movie with affecting emotions told very sparsely. And that is why you get Yim Ho to direct the adaptation. Also made into an 1989 Japanese TV movie, we look at Kitchen and notice how much Yim Ho is having stylistic playtime with cinematographer Poon Hang-Sang. Almost to the point where we're scared he's going to venture of into abstract arthouse territory. Rest assured, aside from a select few puzzling and odd, almost dreamlike scenes, Yim Ho instead comes off as the filmmaker wanting a soothing, professional looking atmosphere to surround the human relationships on display. Comes off as a filmmaker wanting to grow also.

With the notion of the kitchen being a key and awakening for Aggie, it's in reality part of many focal points, with the central being the notion of how much we rely on our fellow man during times when the unpredictable life rattles you in a big, bad way. Going from apathy and within showing signs of mental instability, the point of the story of awakening is that you wake up and latch onto things that may not seem logical or sane. Aggie's jump to infatuation with the kitchen just happens but who's to say how you map out the human mind? And who's to say any step towards bettering yourself is a wrong step? Through life's ups and downs, you do bad, you do good but hopefully end up at a point of a positive nature where no step before it equals that of regret. Aggie being part of a playful mother/son relationship of course becomes the one her fellow duo looks to for support so it's characters going through the same cycles in quite a fascinating, low-key way.

Coupled with the beautiful, soothing score by Uchihashi Kazuhisa and Otomo Yoshihide (Summer Snow), Yim Ho provides very clear journeys where little by little Louie and Aggie begin to appreciate what they mean for each other. Some trouble along the way has to do with their actual, very fast transition to being very close and right for each other and it also leads to some puzzling scenes that do flirt with abstract notions not belonging in a Yim Ho frame. It doesn't come off as complex in a valid way but overall from the point where we realize the relationship dynamics in the long run, Kitchen has quite an amazing, simple-minded flow. The less complex, the more beautiful human emotions you can achieve and Yim Ho does that. Best complexity though is that of how open, conscious or not, you are to deciding how you want to lay out every step in life. Aggie in this case is quite firm in stating that sex won't bring any emotional solution but there's an argument against that decided step which makes the train of thoughts very involving.

Without friends, family or all out support, humans become unreasonable and that's not saying we need company all the time but we can't abandon or risk the chance of losing them consciously. But Kitchen preaches unpredictability early obviously since the first starting point is that of tragedy and it never lets go off that stance. Well-conveyed and easy to pick up on, a trio of different performers add to this in their own little way. Jordan Chan impresses the most, being a young performer so well immersed into this universe AND bringing tons of heart to it by himself. Law Kar-Ying in drag can take some getting used to (seeing as he's often called upon to be a comedic performer in film normally) but part of the broken, scarred trio of characters he is. So while not the primary focus, Tomita Yasuko performs a challenging character superbly because we go back to that mentally unstable, lacking logic way of clinging on to life again and the character naturally has to come off as off-beat at times. So it's quite life affirming work by Yim Ho, a movie destined to be small and had it not been for said oddities sprinkled sporadically throughout as well as the unwillingness to finish the last 15 minutes more efficiently, it would've been perhaps THE Yim Ho work. As it stands now, strong amidst a body of work being stronger is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Doesn't that feel uplifting?

The DVD (Mei Ah):

Video: 1.64:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.

Audio: Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0.

Subtitles: English, Chinese (imbedded).

Extras: None.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson