HUNGER (คนหิว เกมกระหาย) (NETFLIX) 2023)
SYNOPSIS: Aoy (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) runs her family’s local stir-fried noodles restaurant. Her life is about to change when she decides to join team HUNGER, led by Chef Paul (Nopachai Jayanama) who introduces her to the dark sides of the fine-dining industry.
It’s unfortunate ‘Hunger’ comes so soon after ‘The Menu’ – because both have a notoriously demanding but highly sought after fine dining chef as their antagonist, the comparisons between them are inevitable. And yet, if we had to choose, we’d say we’d like ‘Hunger’ more, chiefly because there is a lot more depth and poignancy to this story about a young talented street cook who has to decide what for her are the more important ingredients in life.
Said cook is Aoy (played by Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying of ‘Bad Genius’), whom we are introduced cooking pad see ew fried noodles at her family’s street-side restaurant. Whilst her friends envy her for having a real job right after school, Aoy isn’t yet ready to be content spending the rest of her life slaving away at the modest diner. So when a junior assistant sous chef (Gunn Svasti) invites her to try out at Hunger, an elite culinary business run by Paul (Nopachai Chaiyanam), Aoy immediately leaps at the opportunity to – in her words – “be special”.
Aoy’s audition is a simple fried rice dish, which she aces by beating a self-absorbed lad who thinks he’s better than her just by virtue of having graduated from one of the top culinary schools in the country. Yet, as Aoy soon discovers, that is but the start of her challenges under Chef Paul’s tutelage, not least because the highly sought after chef by the rich and famous is in fact an arrogant, egoistical and vindictive person by nature, eager to put down than nurture each and every one of his trainees.
Clocking in at slightly more than two hours, ‘Hunger’ pushes the limits of disbelief in showcasing just how far Chef Paul would go and the ramifications it has on the rest of his crew. Aoy’s induction will be over how to lightly sear A5 Wagyu beef, from slicing it without “sawing” to “working the fire” in order to preserve the flavourful blood within, resulting in flaming oil burns over her arms after spending a night perfecting her frying skills to be ready to serve dinner at a powerful general’s house. Without giving too much away, let’s just say Aoy isn’t the only one unhappy with Chef Paul’s bullying.
The tension between Aoy and Chef Paul reaches boiling point after the former objects to the latter’s wilful disregard of an illegal hunt cum cook-out he brings the crew out on. Their falling out sets up a third act where Aoy is given the opportunity to break out of Chef Paul’s shadow to set up her own fine dining establishment, though it is by this same stroke that she realises ironically how she would ultimately be beholden to those with wealth and power as long as she wants to continue being part of that social circle.
Indeed, the two-hander between Aoy and Chef Paul is really a means to expose the hypocrisy of such expensive culinary experiences – as artful, accomplished and tasteful they may be, they are but artefacts for the rich to boast and brag over lavish dinner parties, for their selfies, and on social media. Both director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri (of ‘Inhuman Kiss’) and writer Kongdej Jaturanrasamee (of ‘The Girl from Nowhere’) hardly disguise their disdain for the insatiable appetite of the wealthy, whose hunger will never be filled even by the best food in the world.
Even as it packs a strong social message, ‘Hunger’ doesn’t lose sight of Aoy’s coming-of-age journey. Though from a humble background, Aoy has the chance to catapult herself into the highest echelons of society, and has therefore to decide if it is worth it; in particular, she has to decide if she wants to pander to the rich like Chef Paul did, or to have a simpler but more carefree life to be able to focus on friends and family. It isn’t difficult to guess which she eventually settles for, but Chuengcharoensukying is a class act as Aoy, portraying her character’s dilemmas, motivations and resolve with absolute understatement.
Much as we enjoyed ‘The Menu’, we loved ‘Hunger’ for its character-driven story as well as its strong(er) message about class and its divides. It also deserves credit for being one of the most visually ravishing Thai films we’ve seen in recent memory, paying off especially in a couple of extravagant set-pieces that demonstrate Mongkolsiri’s attention to atmosphere, build-up and payoff. So even though it does run a little too long, ‘Hunger’ is still an immensely satisfying drama that pierces the veil of the rich and famous, and lets us all know that you don’t get satiated just by being on top of everyone else..
Review by Gabriel Chong