Doesn’t matter the time period or culture, there’s something about food that brings people together. It doesn’t just nourish the body, it possesses the capability of nourishing the soul. The best cinematic iteration of this is the scene in Ratatouille when critic Anton Ego takes a bite of the titular dish and finds himself thrown through time, reminded of the food his mother would make for him as a boy. Time itself is fleeting, yet sense memory can yank us back to moments jubilant and precious. If pressed, even you, dear reader, could likely think of one meal, one snack, one perishable item which brings forth some sweetness of years past. Food is communal, binding us to one another in ways we can understand metaphysically, even if not tangibly. In a way, this is the crux of Midnight Diner, the directorial debut from actor Tony Leung Ka-fai (Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch). It’s the latest cinematic adaptation of the manga Shin’ya shokudô, by creator Yarō Abe, whose stories revolve around the customers who come in and out of the small late-night eatery. Originally released in 2019, Midnight Diner comes to the U.S. for the first-time thanks to a Blu-ray release from Well Go USA, offering a new cinematic approach to the well-appreciated stories.
Tucked away in Shanghai is a small diner, open from midnight into the early morning. There, the quiet chef, known as Master (Tony Leung Ka-fai), serves whatever his customers wish. Sometimes the customers are regulars, sometimes they are first-timers, and sometimes they are regulars who are returning after a long time away. The one thing they each have in common is that they bring along their own story of the food which sustains them.
Having not read the manga, nor watched either of the previous Midnight Diner films, and not seen any of the televised adaptations, this review will neither compare nor speak to the accuracy in its adaptation. What it will do is examine the work itself as a film and the manner in which it tells a complete story. On this last bit, it does not. This is not a slight at all against the film, but it’s also designed to be an on-going experience. The framing is intentional and is made clear via the bookends explaining as such at the outset and at the end: various cities have their own midnight diners with their own stories, so what this film does is simply share some of them. While the same characters are involved across multiple stories to different extents, each tale is more individual with the end results confined to their respective beginnings and ends. This enables the film to cover quite a few shorter stories with a longer story encompassing the bulk of the end. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for films with a romantic angle and there are several here involving this particular genre, but what makes them work is that they aren’t necessarily all successful romances. Rather, there’s some realism in how personal trepidation, poor timing, or a number of other things can get in the way of a happy ending. As presented by the actors from the script by Simon Chen and Chris Chow, nothing is blown into soap-operatic proportions, enabling each vignette to be natural and understated, even in their more dramatic moments.
Even if the majority of the stories didn’t illicit a laugh or tear (seriously, the early stories are downright charming or heartbreaking), it’s the food that steals the entire show. The way cinematographer Chor Keung Chan captures the intimacy of cooking is just divine. Sharing a meal, as mentioned before, is more than just dining with someone, it’s an exchange of familiarity. In concert, Chan and Ka-fai convey an understanding of this by frequently putting the audience right up against what’s being sliced, diced, stir fried, or candied. Building toward this delight, we also get to see Master shopping, seeing how he selects ingredients, making the preparation a tease for what’s to come later. Frankly, the food looks and sounds so good in the making that it’s easy to believe the audible and physical responses from the cast when they take a bite. They never cross over into the uncomfortable, more carnal reactions that fellow Japanese food-centric manga Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma draws out as characters ingest each meal; rather, the response is smaller, quieter, yet just as powerful in conveying the deliciousness of the meal. With no bonus features included in the home release, there’s no telling if Ka Fei was the one doing the actual cooking or if it tasted as good as it looked and sounded, but the sight of the process sure made me hungry. If that’s not a testament to the quality of presentation, I’m not sure what would be.
Continuing the thought on the bonus features, other than previews for either previously released or upcoming Well Go USA films, as well as the trailer for Midnight Diner, there’s nothing extra, no garnish, no dessert, to accompany the feature film. Honestly, this feels like a missed opportunity, especially as the credits are accompanied by what seems to be members of the production crew talking about their favorite midnight diner experiences and their relationship with food. Why not include an episode of one of the television programs or a digital edition of one of the mangas? There’s likely a rights issue involved, but finishing Midnight Diner only whet my appetite for more. For U.S. watchers, if the film does hit you as it did me, you can jump over to Netflix and enjoy three seasons of the Midnight Diner television program and two seasons of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, each featuring Kaoru Kobayashi as Master.
Films are strangely treated almost entirely like food. There are the ones considered elegant and identifiable by the chef who makes it (Goodfellas (1990); Jaws (1975)) and there are the ones considered garbage yet beloved (The Toxic Avenger (1984); Flash Gordon (1980)). In a battle between critics and the general population, there will always be arguments over what belongs where and for what reasons, but the one thing we can all agree on is that there are some films that bring us comfort. These are films that connect with us on a personal level, no matter the quality of performance or presentation. These are films that, on our darkest days or brightest highs, return us to a place of simple joy. Surprisingly, this perfectly describes Midnight Diner, a film which is simple in its presentation, yet offerings ample opportunities to share in the emotion of the characters. Though the release itself is bare bones, there’s delicious, nutrient-rich content in the film itself, making for a robust meal all on its own.
Midnight Diner Special Features
- Well Go USA Preview Trailers
- Midnight Diner Trailer
Available on Blu-ray August 17th, 2021.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s official Midnight Diner website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.