The Soul of Bread
Starring: Chen Han-tien, Michelle Chen Yan-hsi, Anthony Neely
Directors: Sean Kao and Lin Chun-yang
Category: IIA (Mandarin, Taiwanese and English)
It's perhaps ironic how Gao-bing (Chen Han-tien), the Taiwanese baker battling a suave English-speaking chef for the heart of his childhood love in The Soul of Bread, acknowledges his lack of invention as his one fatal flaw.
And this is exactly the charge one can use against Sean Kao and Lin Chun-yang's film. By reworking many of the narrative devices driving past culinary comedies, the directorial duo offers feel-good romantic drama which huffs and puffs but ends up running short of soul.
It doesn't take a film fan to spot the film's replication of elements from past gastronomic gag-fests (like Stephen Chow Sing-chi's God of Cookery and the more melodramatic Korean film Le Grand Chef), or its use of a quaint Taiwanese idyll complete with kind-hearted pensioners (Wei Te-sheng's Cape No. 7). Stripping away such similarities, the film is merely a bizarre love triangle in which a woman must choose between a pauper or a prince.
Gao-bing (Mandarin for 'pastry') is a boor whose coarse appearance belies a generous spirit and a knack for bringing tasty bread to his hometown. Bread (Anthony Neely), is an international celebrity chef who wanders into town to look for the bread which converted his recently deceased mother into a food writer decades ago.
Between them is Ping (Michelle Chen Yan-hsi of You Are the Apple of My Eye fame, above left with Chen Han-tien), a young woman craving a glimpse of the outside world away from the family bakery where Gao-bing works.
Well aware of the actress' appeal with young males, the filmmakers have lost no time in playing up her presence in the film. However, Ping is probably the least developed character of the three. Her yearning for foreign shores is vague, and there is little oppression or confinement to prevent her leaving (unlike most people in town, she speaks near-perfect English).
Empathy with this dreamer is in short supply, and only marginally better is Bread, whose odd name - he's supposed to be French, so shouldn't he be called 'Pain'? - is on a par with his ropey motive and caricatured culinary talents (he makes baguettes which spice up the local pensioners' sex lives).
In fact, Gao-bing should have been the driving force of the film. He's the most complex character here, a self-doubting, sensitive small-town boy living in a form of denial owing to the parochial circumstances he has grown up with. Instead, his frustration is mostly channelled into some kind of spurned-lover angst. It's a wasted opportunity to knead something more substantial into what now appears to be a superficial crowd-pleaser with an eye for teenage dough.
The Soul of Bread opens today