The Menu is based on a television series that showed on HKTV, a relative newcomer to the artistic wasteland that is local television.
Did I say that… or just think it?
I’d encourage people who don’t know about HKTV or its owner, Ricky Wong, to Google both of them, because it’s an interesting story. And by interesting, I mean a sordid tale of protectionism, cronyism, and political ugliness.
But why is that important? Well, because The Menu is about local media (though a lot of it applies everywhere) and some of their… less attractive traits. Hong Kong’s tabloid media has a long and sordid history of exploitation, insensitivity, and a crassness so blatant it sincerely makes me jealous. It also has a negative side.
I know some journalists in Hong Kong, and they’re good people. But some of their colleagues are absolute f@#$ing animals who would literally step over a burning kitten to get a story or photo. I say that because the opening scene of The Menu might seem overstated, outlandish, and unrealistic to people unfamiliar with the local tabloid press. But if you’ve spent more than a month in Hong Kong, you’ll recognize the veracity of the depiction.
I howled with derisive glee in the cinema because I know that some of these people are avaricious (!) savages with such an utter dearth (!) of conscience that the ghost of Heinrich Himmler whimpers in revulsion.
But that’s just my opinion.
The movie apparently was to be the 2nd season of the TV show. If that’s true, it helps explain a lot. The Menu looks very… television-esque. Maybe Hong Kong people are so used to stars crossing back and forth between TV and movies that they don’t mind when the visual styles cross over. But if The Menu was shot to be a TV show, that makes sense.
The budget is obviously modest, and the scale of the production means that we’re not looking at sweeping vistas and large sets. But that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. The opening car sequence is very effectively staged and shot from an action perspective. The CG in the movie isn’t the greatest you’ve ever seen, but to be fair I’m sure the FX budget for this film was not astronomical.
And to be even fairer, when I watched The Menu I saw a trailer for Heartfall Arises, which stars Lau Ching Wan and Nicolas Tse, and the CG in that movie is no better.
When you factor in the differences in budgets between these movies, it’s even worse. But never mind that.
I was saying that The Menu isn’t a ‘big’ movie. It doesn’t need to be. The story is about people, and so it doesn’t really need bigness (?) By keeping the (figurative) focus close, it accentuates the humanness of the story and characters, even when you’d rather not be so close to some of them.
Josephine Yu plays the Mandarin-speaking (but Taiwanese) boss of a rival, and she does a really commendable job at being so hate-able.
Speaking of commendable, it was nice to see Jeana Ho playing a resoundingly regular character that was neither bitchy nor wearing lingerie.
I’m not sure I believe her as a college intern, but that’s probably because I’m not working in universities any more.
It was nice to see Ng Man Tat in a non-comedic role. Sometimes he oversold the character, but at other times he was very convincing.
So was Justin Cheung as the owner of the media outlet. He was very believable, mature, and engaging.
The Menu’s genesis in TV would also explain the way the narrative can sometimes seem more than a little choppy or cursory. I got the impression that paring a season’s worth of story down to 90 minutes necessitated removing some things that I wish were still there. I would have believed the story a little more, and I think it would make the movie better.
The Menu is not a great film, but it is topical, relevant, and it tells some rather ugly truths in a refreshingly straightforward manner. It has an unmistakable political perspective, or bias, to be sure, but most movies do. The Menu just happens to wear its bias on its sleeve, and like I said, if you know about HKTV I can’t say I blame them.
I can easily admire the ambition in The Menu even if I don’t always admire the execution. It’s an extremely local film, and the more you understand about Hong Kong culture and politics the more you’ll get out of it.
The Menu is one of those movies that I can say I’m really glad it was made. It’s not perfect, but it’s there, and these days that’s an accomplishment in itself.