Likeable cast serve up comfort fare

Review: Comedy Drama

ZONE PRO SITE: THE MOVEABLE FEAST (PG)

144 mins/Opens on Thursday/3 and a half out of 5

The story: Aspiring actress Hsiao Wan (Kimi Hsia) flees with her mother (Lin Mei-hsiu) from debt collectors by setting up a small eatery in a quiet town. When the debt collectors discover their new abode, mother and daughter decide to enter a local "ban doh" cooking competition in the hope of winning the NT$1 million prize money. They seek the help of "cuisine doctor" Yeh Ru-hai (Yo Yang), who has a knack for improving recipes.

Do not be put off by the ridiculously meaningless title.

Zone Pro Site, which looks like something that should have been slapped on a zombie thriller instead, was used simply because it sounds like the movie's Chinese title "zong pu shi", or "master banquet chef". Clearly, some people from the film's promotions department were trying too hard to be clever.

Make no mistake, though, the movie itself is a warm and colourful work that comes off as very, very earnest.

Centred on the Taiwanese tradition of "ban doh", or outdoor street banquet, the film pays loving tribute to the island's customs, language and some long-forgotten cuisine.

The food porn throughout, which features age-old local fare such as a tantalisingly bizarre dish where a turtle is stuffed into a chicken and then stuffed again in a pork belly wrap, is all utterly drool-worthy.

There is also much emphasis on good old comfort food (leftover stew and fried beehoon) over gourmet restaurant fare, so much so that you will leave the cinema craving mum's cooking.

Little wonder then, that the movie's down-to-earth charm has struck a chord with audiences in Taiwan and become a runaway hit, making more than NT$300million (S$12.7 million) to date.

Unlike earlier Taiwanese box-office smash David Loman, which featured many Minnan puns that were all lost in translation when dubbed in Mandarin here, Zone Pro Site is a lot broader in its appeal. After all, good food is something that everyone understands.

More importantly, however, this film has plenty of heart.

One can almost see writer-director Chen Yu-hsun, who was nominated for a Golden Horse for Best Original Screenplay for comedy Tropical Fish (1994), laughing out loud as he made this film that features a string of wacky characters and deadpan jokes.

His writing is not always smooth: Some characters are way over the top, such as the three cooking contest judges who grossly exaggerate every facial expression, while others are simply one-dimensional.

But the main cast are likeable in all their silly, wide-eyed innocence.

Veteran actress Lin Mei-hsiu, in particular, steals the show whenever she appears. Donning big hair and rainbow-coloured outfits, she plays the boisterous, lovable auntie whom everyone loves to banter with.

Rising star Kimi Hsia is also well cast as Lin's cutesy daughter who is more interested in pretty clothes and make-up than frying fish. Her slightly whiny demeanour could easily have become grating to watch, but Hsia pulls it off.

Heart-throb Yo Yang turns in one of the most surprisingly funny performances. As usual, he plays a suave hunk, but this hunk hilariously gets all of his Mandarin intonations wrong. Pity then that his character almost disappears in the later half of the film.

A hearty, if inconsistent, feast.


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