“The real winners are always the ones who hunger the most,” says Chef Paul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) in the opening scene of Hunger, the Thai drama released on Netflix last week. Hunger, indeed, is — as the title suggests — a leitmotif in the movie, manifesting not just as the name of the chef’s restaurant but as being synonymous with ambition, drive, persistence and desire. Like a perfectly-cooked dish, the movie starts off at a slow simmer before veering into a bubbling boil, one that constantly runs the risk of running over yet is saved somehow by the deft manoeuvring of an excellent chef; in this case, director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri.
The movie tells the story of Aoy (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), a talented cook who runs a modest family restaurant in Bangkok, and her attempt to enter the world of fine dining. After a chance encounter with Tone, a junior sous-chef who works at Hunger , Aoy finds herself auditioning for a position at the restaurant and winning thanks to her excellent wok skills, honed by years of cooking noodles. From there, it goes into an admittedly predictable deep dive into the hellish world of restaurant kitchens, a phenomenon that has already been explored in shows like The Bear and Hell’s Kitchen. On her first day at work, for instance, Aoy is abused in public for her inability to cut and fry the wagyu beef perfectly, a co-worker, who is caught smoking in the kitchen, is force-fed cigarette-laced soup while Paul’s sous-chef Uncle Dang ends up stabbing him during a kitchen scuffle.
Director: Sitisiri Mongkolsiri
Cast: Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Nopachai Chaiyanam, Gunn Svasti, Bhumibhat Thavornsiri, Varit Hongsananda, Prachan Vong-uthaiphan, Ratchawat Vichianrat, Pattarawit Junthai and
Runtime: 145 minutes
Storyline: A talented young street food cook tries to make it in the competitive, ruthless world of fine dining
Hunger is also a pointed commentary on the class divide, how food is sustenance for some and decadence for others. “Made with love? An excuse made by those who can’t escape poverty,” Chef Paul tells Aoy when she waxes eloquent on how food is about memory, emotions and legacy. In that same scene, in a rare moment of vulnerability, he tells her the reason why he became a chef and concludes, “What you eat represents your social status, not your love. The poor eat to end their hunger. But when you can buy more than food, your hunger doesn’t end.”
While the use of food as a metaphor for social hierarchy and power is clever, it could do with some subtlety. Yes, these are important conversations to have, especially in a country like Thailand where class divisions are so dramatically wide, but the movie’s politics are uncomfortably obvious, and the artlessness of these observations can grate on your nerves, after a while. And, it doesn’t help that the rich people who are drawn to Chef Paul are caricatures, not characters, gross facsimiles of humanity who clearly don’t deserve their ill-gotten wealth.
What saves Hunger from simply being a melodramatic, unidimensional pot-boiler, however, is the stunning cinematography and stellar performances by the lead actors. Think sweeping cityscapes and gorgeous close-ups of food, kitchen equipment and the actors’ faces: their eyes and expressions rise over the corniness of dialogue. And while not really a spooky thriller, it offers some elements of it — think eerie music and grotesque close-ups which make the movie less taxing than it could be given the pacing. Though, if one must be honest, it could have done with a good half an hour shaved off.
Despite its predictability, Hunger’s relevance in these current times cannot be disputed: the recent announcement on the closure of Michelin-starred restaurant Noma has again raised conversations around the ethics and sustainability of fine dining. It is also a powerful film from a visual perspective, almost certainly likely to garner visceral reactions from its viewers. Definitely worth a watch, but be warned: the movie is likely to put you off fine dining forever.
Hunger is currently streaming on Netflix