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Hunger

Released 2023. Director: Sitisiri Mongkolsiri

THE APPETITE FOR HAUTE CUISINE AND GASTRONOMIC EXTRAVAGANCE on screen continues. Only months after The Menu and Triangle of Sadness comes Hunger, another serving to dish up the unsavoury side of fine dining, this time in Thailand.

Aoy, a young woman tossing noodles over a wok at a nondescript roadside restaurant, is offered a chance to join the major league working for kitchen celebrity Chef Paul. Their culinary styles are diametrically opposite each other’s; one is humble street food, the other immaculate works of culinary art.

Aoy is hand-picked by sous chef Tone who sees her as a diamond in the rough. Her first day in the kitchen is a nightmare that almost crushes the naïve and unprepared novice, who has no idea what to expect, and gets a job interview and cooking test designed to break your spirit. But Aoy perseveres, and before long, her skills and determination propels her career to such heights she opens a rival restaurant as the country’s newest cooking sensation.

Hunger sets up the two principal characters as a clash of master and disciple, of new and old, of fashionable and traditional, of ego and humility, of opposing approaches to feeding.

Aoy, played by model-turned-actress Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, is initially unschooled in the high-pressure environment of a commercial kitchen. Nevertheless the fast learner is unfazed by the strict procedures and meticulous demands on her steep learning curve. While she hones her practical skills, her eyes are open to the excesses and follies of moneyed patrons that’d never have stepped inside the cheap and modest joint her father runs. Food on a plate, as Aoy discovers, is not merely there to satisfy physical hunger. To some people, what you eat defines who you are. More importantly, some people eat to be seen.

Chef Paul feeds into this psychology because he’s the one whose food people want to be seen eating. To be able to afford Chef Paul’s menu you show everyone you’re rich, powerful and influential. In other words, you’re at the pinnacle of the elite.

Hunger takes no prisoners in fine dining, mocking its makers and consumers alike. Chef Paul is rarely shown in complimentary manner. An intimidating taskmaster, he rules his little kingdom with fear and cows his employees into submission. Driven by his fixation to be worshipped by those he despises, Chef Paul doesn’t appear to find true fulfilment in what he has accomplished. He cuts a lonely figure because he makes no attempt to be real, or even decent. He relishes in being difficult and obnoxious and I doubt audiences feel any sympathy for him.

A flashback sequence shows us what spurred Chef Paul on his obsession to become a celebrity chef. The child of a poor housemaid, young Paul watched how his mother endured humiliation at the hands of her uncaring employer. When the boy dropped a jar of caviar he stole, his mother worked for months to pay it off. The child promised himself he would make the wealthy beat a path to his door one day.

When Chef Paul relates this story to Aoy it almost softens the hardened kitchen idol. For a moment you feel he has real feelings, but it only lasts three seconds. Chef Paul retains his severe persona and Napochai Chaiyanam plays him with one expression throughout as a totally unapproachable character by design. Does he feel avenged with his success? Has he found peace now that he has the fat cats worshipping at his feet? The main flaw with this movie is the decision to only show us one side of what could’ve been a fascinating character. The egotistical Chef Paul enters the scene as a bully, and exits stage right unredeemed.

The bulk of the movie’s disdain, however, is reserved for the affluent at the top of the political and social hierarchy. These diners are portrayed as grotesque savages with gross etiquette, red jus dripping from their mouths as they devour pink meat in unflattering close-up shots. The nouveau riche crypto generation doesn’t even care what they’re shelling out mega bucks to eat as long as they can show off on Instagram. On one occasion Chef Paul and his team are brought along to hunt, slaughter and cook endangered animals.

While Chef Paul is an unlikeable character, Aoy is plainly the one to win audiences over. Here’s an untrained hawker off the street, a philistine blessed with a talent for cooking, offered an opportunity of a lifetime to work for an industry giant. Chef Paul is all about self-aggrandizement while Aoy maintains a connection with her humble roots and in the end, makes the choice to turn her back on fame and fortune. What gives her life meaning is family and friends, and the simple food they enjoy, which at one point she describes as “made with love”, to which Chef Paul retorts that it’s just an excuse made by poor people.

As a serious drama (as opposed to making it a black comedy for satirical effect), some of the elements make the story not entirely believable. The wagyu beef scene early on stands out as an example of unrealistic writing straining to make a point. I can’t see a top-tier head chef or restaurateur putting an untrained cook through that sort of test. They can be tyrannical but they never lose sight of the bottom line. To allow a novice cook to repeatedly butcher and dump the most expensive chunk of meat is absurd.

Hunger doesn’t offer a great deal of insight or critique that’s fresh or surprising. Having created two potentially compelling characters to examine issues of class, greed, ambition and changing values in food culture, it's disappointing they've not been given the depth they deserve.


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