The restaurant kitchen is a potent venue for tales of inequality. Food is both a great uniter and a great divider—both necessity and status hallmark. Simultaneously, the space itself holds a distinctly fascistic image in the popular consciousness, from the fine-dining reality shows of the foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, to Mark Mylod’s culinary satire The Menu, which gives its head chef a class-centric serial killer bent. Hunger, Netflix’s fine-dining film out April 8 from Thai director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri, is far more straightforward in that vein. It’s far more lucid in its aims, often to a fault; you may have to duck to avoid being hit over the head with its explicit verbal musings on class disparity. However, in refusing to disguise itself with plot gimmicks or genre quirks, Hunger complements these themes with aesthetics and performances that elevate it from mere “eat the rich” passé and turns it into rigorous drama about the personal impact of ascending the unforgiving stepladder of capitalist social strata.
A young woman, Aoy (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying), runs a streetside family noodle shop in Bangkok’s Old Town, toiling away at its scorching wok station as poor workers stumble in for a hearty meal. However, one of her customers, a quiet, observant sous chef named Tone (Gunn Svasti), is just there for a bite—literally, one single bite—and is impressed enough by Aoy that he tells her she’s too good for this establishment. Before he leaves, he hands her a fancy, black business card embossed with a single, gilded word: Hunger.
There’s no in-world mystery to what this means—Hunger is the name of an exclusive upscale, catering establishment housed in an enormous skyscraper, and Tone is offering Aoy a job—but the exchange is presented with an air of mystery, as if Tone were an envoy sent by a secret cult, to lure Aoy in with an impossible promise. Hunger is also a repeated motif throughout the story, part of a mantra by which the establishment’s enigmatic owner, chef Paul (Nopachai Jayanama) lives, breathes, and climbs up the ladder of high society. To chef Paul, succeeding in a ruthless world requires an equally ruthless desire to survive, and so the movie introduces him (and his techniques) with a distinct brutality, as he plunges a blade into the head and torso of a still-living, still-writhing lobster for the amusement of wealthy, insatiable onlookers at a fancy garden party. Preparing fresh seafood is routine, but Mongkolsiri’s reverent camera transforms it into an act of ritual sacrifice.
After a cut-throat audition process, Aoy is drafted into chef Paul’s militaristic ranks, a close-circle of half a dozen sous chefs and line cooks deemed potentially worthy. It’s all a bit silly and self-serious on paper, but Jayanama’s intensity turns each and every scene into high-octane drama. Chef Paul may be a cinematic “type” sketched from ideas of culinary despots in popular culture—think the scornful stares and harsh whispers of Marco Pierre White—but Jayanama creates a sense of allure with his refusal to budge. The camera remains transfixed on his frigid reactions to Aoy’s amateur mistakes, but rather than expressing what he wants in words, he demands with his eyes. He creates dread while barely moving, until eventually, his approval (or lack thereof) consumes the camera’s (and the characters’) entire field of vision.
As Aoy, Chuengcharoensukying is a worthy dramatic adversary to Jayanama, even though it takes her a while to rise to the occasion. The actress doesn’t quite fit in with the drudgery of Aoy’s roadside kitchen; the character’s sweat feels more sprayed on than lived in, just like the bandana meant to keep it from dripping down her forehead feels more like an awkward costume piece than an extension of character (she isn’t nearly as natural a fit for this section as the other poor characters who hang about the shop). However, once Aoy is faced with the challenge of impressing chef Paul, Chuengcharoensukying taps into a fierce intensity born from the character’s laser-focus to prove herself worthy of renown—even if it means being berated and threatened by the tyrannical head chef along the way.
Chuengcharoensukying does, unfortunately, fall victim to another dramatic misstep, in that Hunger is too quick to switch her from scrappy upstart to the kind of short-tempered authoritarian she despises. However, despite the movie robbing the young actress of the chance to sell the interiority of this transformation, it’s the kind of transition that feels entirely in-step with the movie’s credo on how money and power can (and inevitably, will) corrupt. Chuengcharoensukying subsequently embodies this notion in riveting hues, depicting its end-point with an almost tragic aggression, as she pushes away her friends and family in pursuit of money and clout as a celebrity chef.
Chef Paul, already having been through this process, meets each of Aoy’s successes with an icy glare, like a parent she’ll never impress. His own drive is slowly and carefully revealed through flashback, as the result of events which permanently distorted his view of the relationship between people and money. Chef Paul never fully bears his soul, but in revealing these elements of his backstory to Aoy, he comes ever so close to feeling truly human, as Jayanama lets slip the character’s imposing mask, expressing hints of vulnerability underneath—as if he can still be brought back from the brink of the stoic, un-feeling image he’s crafted for himself.
The creation of this ruthless aura is where Aoy’s story lives and breathes, as she finds herself increasingly trapped between notions of humble culinary simplicity—through family recipes made with love—and boundary-pushing gastro experiments that technically qualify as exquisite artistry, but lack an artist’s soul. The film is incredibly adept at capturing the subtext of chef Paul’s concept-driven meals, which he always plans with a tongue planted firmly in cheek—for instance, his uncomfortably vicious preparation of blood-soaked meat dishes, served to haughty socialites celebrating a military regime. At every turn, Mongkolsiri uses slow motion close-ups to depicts each dish as if it were a delectable gift from the heavens, but he’s just as quick to depict the grubby hands and rich mouths paying exorbitant amounts for it as ravenous hordes.
“The poor eat to end their hunger,” chef Paul says. “But when you can buy more than food, your hunger doesn’t end.” It’s a direct (if obvious) expression of the character’s perspective on wealth, and one that might have seemed trite were it the only way in which Mongkolsiri ever depicted this idea. However, in presenting cooking as diligent artistry, eating as bacchanalian revelry, and human beings as vulnerable to the magnetism of power, Hunger becomes a thrilling piece of visual poetry about how status symbols supersede people in modern societies, and how opulence can be a poison to which all are susceptible—including those of us merely watching these luxurious, mouth-watering dishes be prepared on screen.
Published on April 5, 2023