December 30, 2008 – 4:39 am

Everyone is dying to find out the secret behind the popular dumplings at Koji Kawano’s Cruel Restaurant. Suspicions run wild when human body parts start washing up at the beach but the real secret might just turn some people off these common Chinese snacks. Stephen Tan reviews.

The cover art shows an attractive-looking girl in a cheongsam holding a chopper. With a title such as Cruel Restaurant, Koji Kawano’s 2008 movie practically begs comparison with The Untold Story (1993), a film about a restaurant which serves human meat buns. And because it features a popular Chinese snack, it calls to mind another horror movie - Miriam Yeung’s Dumplings.Taking a page from The Untold Story, Cruel Restaurant starts with a fisherman on the beach reeling in what he thinks is a big catch. The big catch turns out to be part of an arm which sends the fisherman shrieking. Looking at the expression on the man’s face and hearing his scream, viewers already get an inkling that Cruel Restaurant will be a tour de farce. To further clue viewers in, it so happens that there is reporter Miho Funatsu sunning herself near the fisherman. Instead of jumping at what is a hot story, she calls her chief and talks about the story she is working on - the popular Tougen Restaurant serving Tougen dumplings.

At the Tougen Restaurant, while Lin (Mihiro) looks like she’s barely out of high school and serves the customers, she’s really the boss. The other staff is Chin (Yamazaki Sakae) who works in the kitchen. The sister of a food critic has disappeared and the food critic and two bumbling police officers suspect the disappearance is tied to the restaurant.

In the meantime, a young man keeps pestering both Lin and Chin to accept him as an apprentice cook. The young man attacks Lin who is doing martial arts (tai chi?) moves in the park but she is saved by one of the policemen. The wannabe cook later confronts Lin alone in the restaurant kitchen and rapes her. However, Lin blacks out during the rape but wakes up in bed with her hands covered with blood. She also gets flashes of the decapitated young man.

The food critic decides to do some snooping on her own at the restaurant and tries to strangle Lin during a scuffle. Lin blacks out (again) but sees the butchered food critic in the bloody kitchen when she awakes. She goes to look for Chin for help but returns to find him alone in the kitchen and no signs of any violence.

One of the detectives decides to shadow Chin but is killed by Chin instead. The reporter decides to do her own snooping and discovers the secret to the popular dumplings but is killed when Chin returns.

Cruel Restaurant might give viewers the impression that it is an ultra violent film though it is not. Sure there are slashings and hackings but much of the violence happens off screen and there isn’t any geyser-like blood splashing all over. It’s also possible the film’s limited budget put a dent on its splatter-gore intentions.

What viewers probably didn’t expect is the sex and nudity in the film. In her rape scene, Lin gets her top pulled off; and to get the secret of the Tougen dumplings, she has to undergo a sexual initiation that involves masturbation, stripping and what is tantamount to being raped.

In a way, Cruel Restaurant lives with the shadow of The Untold Story looming over it. Viewers keep expecting that the dumplings’ popularity is because it contains human meat and director Koji Kawano keeps delaying the denouement. This creates a nice suspense throughout the movie; and when the secret is finally revealed it actually raises the film’s “yuck” rating rather than satiate anyone’s suspense.

To help move things along, Cruel Restaurant also takes a little dig at things Chinese and Chinese cinema in particular. The Tougen Restaurant has Chinese decor and serves Chinese dumplings; its staff are Japanese of Chinese descent; the restaurant’s Master Hoi even wears a Chinese cap and has “typical” Chinese whiskers; Master Hoi’s look and mannerisms recall Simon Yuen Siu-tin [Jacky Chan’s master] in Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow if he had a lecherous streak; Lin practises what looks like tai chi moves and when the young apprentice confronts her, he uses the drunken fist technique. Unfortunately there is no “Chinese” payoff at the end and Kawano resorts to sex and shock for his ending, which owes more than a whiff to Peter Suskind’s Perfume.

Viewers should forget about The Untold Story or even Dumplings [a film based on the secret of youthful beauty] when approaching Cruel Restaurant. Filled with lots of red herrings and misdirections, the secret of making popular dumplings might not prove to be a sumptuous delight but it can be a wild and fun ride.

Note: The Cruel Restaurant DVD (ADV Films) is banned in $ingapore.

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