Director: Chapman To
Cast: Chapman To, Aimee Chan, C-Kwan, Lo Hoi Pang, Tommy Kuan, Daphne Low, Patricia Mok, Fiona Sit, Luk Wing Kuen, Steve Yap, Henley Hii, Mark Lee, Jeremy Chan, Henry Thia
Runtime: 1 hr 36 mins
Released By: Clover Films and Cathay-Keris Films
Official Website: https://www.facebook.com/LetsEatMovie
Opening Day: 5 February 2016
Synopsis: Ah Yong Café, a reputable cafe famous for its Hainanese Chicken Rice, has been a popular eatery since the 80’s. While business now is nowhere near its heyday, it still attracts a steady flow of regular customers. Showing signs of dementia, restaurant owner Ah Yong (Lo Hoi Pang) decides to retire, he entrusts the café to his apprentice cum head Chef Dai Hung (Chapman To) and his daughter Rosemary (Aimee Chan), who has just returned from Europe.
Rosemary is adamant about revolutionizing Ah Yong Café to cater to a younger crowd and has no qualms about using lower-grade ingredients to bring costs down. This infuriates Dai Hung, a principled chef who only serves food made from the freshest ingredients and focuses on keeping the tradition of the café. The two soon becomes loggerheads as they disapprove of each other’s style of working.
Initially, the revamped Ah Yong Café bustles with business with the newly introduced menu and gimmicks, however, the lack-lustre food soon causes the business to suffer and draw flakes from customers and critics. One particular harsh review from the infamous but anonymous food blogger Michelin caused the dwindling business to suffer even further. The regular customers stop patronizing the café and the new customers are turned off.
Indignant and determined to save the reputation of Ah Yong Café and revive its business, Rosemary decides to enter a cooking competition organized by a regional television channel. In the face of predicament, Dai Hung and Rosemary make up and join forces to create a dish for the competition. Rosemary finally understands the true meaning of good food and love, yet, Dai Hung goes missing on the day of the competition…
Till this date, Stephen Chow’s ‘God of Cookery’ remains the gold standard in culinary-themed comedies, and to be sure, Chapman To’s ‘Let’s Eat!’ won’t be changing that yardstick anytime soon; notwithstanding, To’s dish of familiar yet agreeable ingredients makes for an amusing and heartwarming lesson on putting your heart into everything that you do (or in this case, cook), so you don’t have to worry about sending this back to the kitchen at all.
Assuming multi-hyphenate duties here, To not only directs but also writes and stars as the head chef Dai Hung of the once-Michelin starred Ah Yong Café. Its titular owner (Lo Hoi Pang) old and showing signs of dementia, Dai Hung now runs the café with a loyal bunch of servers, including the nerdy bespectacled Brushie (FAMA’s C-Kwan), the pudgy gentle-mannered Gayon (Tommy Kuan) and the coy ingénue Beancurd Flower (Daphne Low). A better cook than businessperson, Dai Hung’s insistence on using only the freshest ingredients for his customers while keeping prices constant means that the restaurant hasn’t turned in a decent profit in years and struggles in fact just to break even.
Before his memory totally fails him, Ah Yong decides to entrust his café to his eldest daughter Rosemary (Aimee Chan), who so happens to return to Malaysia after completing her Masters in hospitality management in Switzerland. Rosemary is a businesswoman at heart, and decides to change how the restaurant is run in order that it stays in the black. Besides making superficial improvements with technology (such as getting customers to make their own orders on iPads), Rosemary overhauls the menu to introduce new-fangled products like Korean fried chicken, fish and chips, and ‘Bangkok Wolverine’ (or ‘tom yum goong’ really) while settling for cheaper ingredients in order to lower costs.
Thus sets the basis for their loggerheads with each other, one the principled head chef who adamantly refuses to part with tradition and perfection and the other the savvy management head who is eager to innovate and do what it takes to improve the bottom line. When the deteriorating food quality is slammed by a famous food blogger by the name of Michelin, is it any wonder that Dai Hung and Rosemary will eventually put aside their differences in order to save the restaurant from oblivion? In fact, is it also any wonder that they will, in the process, fall in love with each other despite recovering from the bruises of their respective previous relationships?
Like we said, originality isn’t the strong suit of his script (who shares screenwriting credit with Lai Chaing Ming and Ang Siew Hoong), but To makes it work with a nice yin-yang chemistry between himself and Chan. As always, To nails the role of the comically self-effacing individual with his amiable easy-going charm, and he shares a pleasingly complementary rapport next to Chan playing the stern and largely humourless rival. It is a pity that To’s writing is a little too thin on the characters, such that Dai Hung and Rosemary’s relationship doesn’t quite evolve during the course of the movie as much as we would have liked it to.
For that same reason, the climax that takes place at a cooking competition organised by a regional TV channel right here in Singapore feels somewhat anti-climactic, especially because Rosemary’s redemption lies at the hands of a French chef and a local food critic who discloses during the judging process that she doesn’t even like chicken to begin with. Even a little twist at the end that reveals the identity of Michelin is hardly any surprise, and the happily-ever-after ending for Dai Hung and Rosemary (were you expecting any different from a CNY movie?) feels more obligatory than deserved despite the former having just recently rejected the advances of a former flame (Fiona Sit).
Yet to begrudge To for these flaws seems parsimonious, for To remains delightfully good-natured company to be in the presence of for a good hour and a half. To’s comedic sensibilities have not dulled even though he assumes multiple duties – an early sequence where he and C Kwan are at a Korean fried chicken outlet dissing the ‘chicken from the stars’ is classically To, and another where and he and Rosemary are at dinner with her father and younger sister sees the former deliver a hilarious monologue which is spot-on in its analogy of how politicians speak. Not all the jokes hit the mark though – in particular, a sequence where Singapore’s own Henry Thia is accused of being Michelin is too belaboured to inspire any laughs; and the same can be said of the token few lines given to Mark Lee who guest stars as the creator of the gastronomic competition.
It needs to be said too that a significant portion of the humour is lost in the Mandarin-dubbed version that is screened in Singapore cinemas, such that To, Chan and C Kwan are heard completely in Mandarin throughout the entire film. That is of course no fault of To’s, who has put his heart into creating an uneven but nonetheless well-intentioned film that emphasises the importance of finding true meaning in the pursuit of innovation or the upkeep of tradition. This is no classic surely, but there are good laughs and great company to be had with ‘Let’s Eat!’, which is more than enough for a pleasing Lunar New Year offering.
(Chapman To's direction is a little rough around the edges, but his chemistry with Aimee Chan and his infectious screen presence is good enough to make a pleasing Lunar New Year offering)
Review by Gabriel Chong