This chef has had almost as many media lives as the heroine of the often-remade Miss Granny. He debuted in Yaro Abe’s manga and has subsequently come to life in multiple Japanese TV series and movies, as well as Korean and Chinese television series. His work is tasty, his wisdom is sage, and his late-night hours are convenient for his restless clientele. This time, “Big Tony” Leung Ka Fai takes his turn behind the grill as “The Master” (or “The Chef,” translations vary) and behind the camera as the director of Midnight Diner, which opens tomorrow in New York.
Originally, the Master’s cozy eatery was nestled away in a Shinjuku back alley, but Leung moves it to Shanghai. The hours are still the same: midnight to 7:00 AM, or whenever the Master feels like opening up for customers who look like they are in need of comfort food. He has several regulars, including his Alon, his adopted brother with anger management issues, and his old crony, Uncle Zhong. Plus, three scatterbrained millennials nearly always stop by.
However, most of the drama focuses customers, who are irregular regulars, like the dopey boxer, who only comes to the diner to retrieve his mischievous mother (and partake of the stir-fry clams). With the help of the Master and his mother (which he never requested), the big lug might have a puncher’s chance romancing the pretty single-mother nurse living in the neighborhood with her wheelchair-bound daughter.
We also meet a lovelorn brand marketing specialist, and a poor, scuffling singer-songwriter, whose stories have varying degrees of bittersweet tragedy. Yet, the tale of two country naïfs, whose bumpy romance cracks under the pressure of mega-urban life is probably the centerpiece of the film.
It is all very nice, but the concept probably works better as a series, allowing characters to more easily enter, exit, and intermingle without the pressure of reaching a quick resolution. Nevertheless, the good-looking cast is certainly pleasant to spend time with. The diner itself is also quite a warm and inviting setting (it still looks very Japanese, but whatever).
Unfortunately, the film has been clouded by controversy completely outside its scope. Reportedly, Leung’s Diner has been on the shelf for two years awaiting the go-ahead for release on the Mainland, which was suspiciously granted shortly after the actor appeared at a rally for the Hong Kong police—even though they have been recorded on video violently attacking pro-democracy protestors, with absolutely no provocation or justification. Sure, Midnight Diner is an agreeable film, but it is not worth selling one’s soul over. (Coincidentally, the film depicts Alon as a cop, whose rage drives him to physically abuse innocent citizens.)
Big Tony, you’re breaking our hearts, especially since you seem so warm and down-to-earth as the Master. It is a side of Leung we rarely see on-screen, while Zhang Li lends the film surprising grit and human frailty as the disturbed Alon. Jiao Junyan is also quite poignant as Snow, the ill-fated singer. Zhang Yishang and Vision Wei are both quite charismatic as the young provincial couple, but their tale of underdog love rent asunder by life is pretty familiar stuff.
As a work of cinema considered with strict critical formalism, Leung’s Midnight Diner constitutes a number of engaging performances (particularly Leung’s own) and some lushly shot cooking scenes. That can be enough for an enjoyable night at the movies, but Eric Khoo’s similarly themed Ramen Shop is a deeper, richer film. However, those who are closely following the Hong Kong protests will probably prefer to get their Midnight Diner fixes from the Japanese series (one of which is available on Netflix and another is on Prime). Recommended for loyal Leung fans, Midnight Diner opens this Friday (9/20) in New York, at the AMC 34th Street.