A corny Chinese anthology tearjerker that starts off somewhat novel and enticing before growing wearisome and boring, Midnight Diner has a good heart, a proven concept, and no desire to pull back on the emotional manipulation whatsoever. Like most anthology films, Midnight Diner works best in fits and starts, with some stories rising above the rest and others sinking to the bottom of the heap, but in the latest film from director and star Tony Leung Ka Fai, the good stuff comes in the first half, with the second half bogged down in the hackiest of romantic cliches.
Midnight Diner is the latest adaptation of a popular Japanese manga of the same name, which spawned a hit television show in that country. The Japanese version of Midnight Diner (which you can currently stream on Netflix and is considerably better than this) became a worldwide phenomenon, so much so that this isn’t the first time an attempt has been made to adapt the material for a Chinese audience. That previous attempt was a series, but it wasn’t particularly well received. Leung’s take on the material first published by Yaro Abe would probably be better off as a series.
The concept for Midnight Diner is a pretty good one as far as anthologies go. A chef (Leung) operates a tiny Shanghai greasy spoon that’s only open from dusk till dawn. He has no menu, but is willing to whip up any comfort food requests his patrons desire. He has his fair share of regulars who come in for the same meal every night, but he’s just as accommodating to newbies. Over food and beers, patrons share their life stories and day-to-day problems with each other, and the chef relays those stories to the viewer.
So far, so good, even if all of the stories contained within Midnight Diner deal almost exclusively with romantic issues, save for the backstory of the quiet old military guy with anger issues who comes in every night and is essentially the chef’s adopted brother. The food cooked up by the chef looks outstanding; full of mouthwatering clams, warm bowls of soup, bubbling oil in the wok. The first couple of stories – about a lovelorn boxer with a drunken mother and a poor in ring record and one about an executive at an aromatherapy company trying to lose weight in a bid impress a returning high school crush – are fairly engaging without laying on the sentimentality with a trowel.
Leung’s film looks every bit like a television series, and I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that this incarnation of Midnight Diner wasn’t a pilot run for something down the road. The musical score swells and refuses to quit throughout. The blocking and cinematography both inside and outside the diner is a strange middle ground between a Robert Altman production and a soap opera. Even the overall gentle tone is somewhat reminiscent of a show one might find on public broadcasting. It’s unpretentious, and that’s kind of the point.
But as Midnight Diner rolls along and the final two stories – about a singer getting introduced to a songwriter and the relationship between an aspiring model and her cab driving boyfriend – come about, Leung’s film quickly wears out its welcome and tedium sets in. Instead of feeling like a knock off of Robert Altman or the original Japanese series, Midnight Diner falls dangerously into Garry Marshall territory, offering up every cliched in the doomed romance handbook. If Midnight Diner were a five course meal, the night would start off fairly solid, flaming out spectacularly once the main dish and dessert made their way to the table.
It might be best to skip out on this one well before closing time, but I can see the appeal of something like Midnight Diner. Leung’s performance carries the film a long way and brings plenty of good will to the project. One would almost rather watch his chef telling these stories to patrons instead of watching them come to life. The restaurant in Midnight Diner looks like a warm and comforting place, as does the person who runs it. The stories told within it are claptrap of the lowest order.
Midnight Diner opens at Cineplex Markham in Markham and SilverCity Riverport in Vancouver on Friday, September 20, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Midnight Diner: