I finally got around to watching The Menu movie last night (yes, I know, a bit late in the game given that the movie was from like 2 years ago). As a fan of the HKTV series that the movie was based off of, I will admit that I was initially a bit conflicted and wasn't sure if I truly wanted to watch the movie or not. I'm sure fellow fans can understand my hesitation but for the benefit of those who may not have been following the whole HKTV saga as closely, I will attempt to explain a little bit about my thought process.
Back when the movie was being filmed, I had actually followed the production process quite closely and tried to read/watch everything I could possibly get my hands on about the movie. Part of the reasoning for this is because I loved the series to the point that I became a fan, so naturally, the last thing I wanted was to see an outside company come in and film a movie version that had the potential to "butcher" the original. Of course, one thing that made this "TV series to movie" adaptation different from what we usually see (i.e. all those past movie adaptations of a certain HK television station's popular series) is that from the getgo, it was very clear from all involved in the production that, as much as possible, the original cast and crew from the series would be involved with the movie as well. This ended up being true to some extent in that Ben Fong was still the director/producer, Pun Man Hung was still the scriptwriter, other behind-the-scenes crew who had worked on the TV series version were also involved with the movie, and much of the cast remained the same (except for a very conspicuous absence from Noelle Leung). Still, despite these reassurances, I was still worried, mostly because the production company that would be making the movie was Stephen Shiu Jr.'s China 3D (a company whose most significant "claim to fame" in the past was in the production of category III sex romps). In addition, there were some "controversies" that erupted during the filming process (which I won't go into here), plus the production process itself came across as super secretive, especially when compared to the "openness" of the filming process for the TV series back in the day. And then there were of course the questions concerning creative freedom and the possible catering of the movie to the Mainland market (a discussion that I remember having 2 years ago with a group of fellow fans of the series). Basically, what I'm trying to say is that, given all these factors (and more), I definitely had cause for concern.
Now, after finally having watched the movie, I can say with confidence that, despite my previous concerns and reservations about the movie turning out to be absolutely warranted (and looks like I ended up being right about quite a few things pertaining to the movie), overall I am happy with the way the movie turned out (I will explain in more detail later).
Before I go further, I want to make it very clear that the purpose of this post is NOT to "review" the movie, so please don't read it expecting a movie review-type write-up critiquing the mechanics of the production, the plausibility of the plot, etc. etc. Instead, please read the below more as a "my thoughts" post on what I thought about the movie from the perspective of a huge fan of the TV series. Since I am writing from the perspective of a fan who has watched the TV series version more than once, no doubt that my post will lean more towards a comparison of the movie with the series, which in turn also means that there will be some things I talk about in this post that non-fans (and those who haven't watched the TV series version) will probably have no clue about. For those reading this post who fall into the latter category, I apologize in advance if not enough detail is given in certain areas and you end up feeling lost -- I definitely won't feel offended if you decide not to continue reading the rest of this post. Oh and for the HKTV haters out there, I strongly recommend not reading further, as a large portion of my post will essentially be me waxing sentimental about the series, which I (obviously) absolutely adored!
Ok, so now that the housekeeping stuff is out of the way, on to my thoughts about the movie….
Let's start with the opening sequence. The first 4 minutes or so of the movie was devoted to a quick recap of the main plot points from the TV series with Kate Yeung's character Mallory narrating in the background. I felt this recap was a necessity given that not everyone may have seen the series or even if they have, might not remember everything that had happened – besides, the recap was done well and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the movie. Earlier on, I had actually read some reviews that "complained" about this opening sequence, claiming that the director was "wasting" precious screen time to "rehash" scenes from the series. Since I had read these reviews awhile back ago before I had the chance to watch the movie, I didn't feel it was appropriate to respond to this critique of the opening segment prior to this point. Now that I've watched, I have to say that I disagree with the reviewers' complaints about the opening sequence being a "waste of time." First of all, the recap was only 4 minutes and actually flew by rather quickly. In fact, I actually felt 4 minutes was too little given the fact that the series itself was 24 episodes and there were a lot of important things that happened. I actually applaud the production team for being able to cram the main highlights of the series into such a short time frame – if it were me, I would probably need 10 to 15 minutes! For those who hadn't seen the series, the recap was a nice way to help familiarize them with the background/premise of the series that the movie was based on. For those who did see the series (even fans like us who have most likely watched the series more than once), it was a good refresher, especially since the movie essentially picked up from where the series left off. For me personally – I actually LOVED the opening sequence, as it reminded me all over again why I fell in love with the series in the first place!
Another thing I appreciated about the opening sequence was that the team didn't forget to throw in there what happened to Noelle Leung's character Alma. Those who watched the series will know that it ended on a cliffhanger of sorts in that Alma was supposed to be on a flight to London but then the Smartpost team received word that a flight with the same itinerary as hers had crashed – the series ended without telling us whether Alma survived or if she was even on that flight to begin with. The movie answered that question and even though the mention was very brief (as it should be given that Noelle wasn't part of the movie), I appreciated finally knowing after all this time.
In terms of cast, since this was an area of utmost concern for me, I will spend a little more time on this aspect of the movie. Most of the main cast from the series did reprise their roles – Catherine, Greg, Kate, Samuel Kwok, Dexter Young, Anita Chan, Li Fung…even Benji, whose character Prince died in the series, made a "special appearance" in the movie. Speaking of Benji – I remember having a discussion a year or two ago (when I first found out that Benji would be in the movie) wondering how Pun Man Hung would incorporate Prince into the storyline. I was thinking for sure it would be in the form of flashback, though I wondered whether it would be new scenes or ones from the series. Then, a few months into filming, the cast "teased" us with pictures posted to their Weibo accounts of the 'Smartpost Fantastic Four' (Fong Ying, Fai Ye, Ah Mal, and Prince) sitting around a table laughing and chatting. Of course I recognized right away that scene was not in the series, plus Benji had talked about returning to HK to participate in the movie, so at that point, I knew that Prince's appearance would be in "new scenes" filmed exclusively for the movie. Though it was technically only one scene that lasted only a few minutes, that was enough to get me teary-eyed all over again over Prince's tragic death in the series. The fact that Prince was one of my favorite characters in the series plus I was a huge shipper of the group's awesome chemistry, it was hard not to get emotional upon seeing the 4 of them back together again, albeit for only a brief moment.
One of the things that I don't think was lost on any die-hard fan of the series is the obvious fact that Catherine and Kate had less prominent roles in the movie compared to Greg, who was very obviously the lead. Of course this isn't surprising given that Greg is signed to China 3D as his management company, so naturally the company would want to promote their own people (which also explains why other China 3D artists such as Jeanna Ho, Jacqueline Ch'ng, Justin Cheung, etc. also got relatively 'prominent' roles in the movie). I will admit that I was a bit ticked about this given how attached I was to the characters in the series (and the artists who played them) and to some extent, I'm still not thrilled about it even now – but since this was already expected even before the movie started filming, plus the final result was not as bad as I thought it would be (it definitely could've been much worse if the original production team was not involved in the movie), I've pretty much come to terms with it. Besides, I also gave "brownie points" for Pun Man Hung's efforts in staying true to the series by giving each person on the Smartpost team a chance to contribute to the storyline. Basically, I was grateful that the rest of the team outside of the main 3 actually had important roles to play and weren't reduced to mere 'guest appearance' roles. In terms of Justin Cheung replacing Noelle Leung's role as the head of Smartpost, I don't have too much to say, since Noelle had turned down the opportunity to participate in the movie. Performance-wise, Justin did fine, but I don't feel it's warranted to compare his role with Noelle's in the series, since Alma was so central to the series' plot whereas Justin's role in the movie was not as significant.
As for the new additions to the cast – I don't have too much to say other than I'm okay with the way they were incorporated into the movie's plot (mostly referencing the "newbies" to the Smartpost team as well as their rival newspaper). Again, it could've been worse so I guess I'm just grateful that the movie turned out the way it did. With that said though, I do want to give a shout out to the veterans that were invited to participate in the movie (i.e. Mimi Kung, Deon Cheung, Akina Fong, etc.), but especially to Ng Man Tat, whose performance was beyond AWESOME in the movie! From his facial expressions to body language to the way he spoke the dialogue, Tat Gor did not miss a beat. He was absolutely the one to watch in this movie and he did not disappoint AT ALL. I'm glad the younger folks got a chance to work with Tat Gor, as I'm sure they learned a lot from him.
Writing this post as a fan of the series, there were some things I picked up from the movie that others may not necessarily have noticed when they watched. To be honest, I wasn't really expecting to pick up on so much, as I tried to go into it with the intention of watching an ordinary HK movie, but I guess when a series has such an impact, it's hard not to compare, which I guess I was subconsciously doing in the back of my mind. In any case, I am going to devote the last section of this post to listing out some of the things I saw which reminded me (perhaps "reassured me" is more appropriate?) that Pun Man Hung and Ben Fong were indeed at the helm of this production. [This is not an all-inclusive list though so if fellow fans picked up on something that I missed, feel free to comment.]
· The TV series version of The Menu was known for its meticulousness. Over the past 3 years, I've actually talked about this in various past posts about the series (complete with examples and all) so I don't intend to go into much detail about this here. All I am going to say is that this meticulousness was indeed maintained in the movie version, which I was happy to see. Of course, there is no doubt in my mind that this was due to Ben Fong's role as director overseeing the production process -- if the director was anyone else but him, I'm sure things would be very different.
· Earlier in this post, I touched a little bit on the chemistry between The Menu's cast, which was an important component to the series' success. One of the unique things about the series was the awesome chemistry between the cast members both ON and OFF the set. Having watched my fair share of HK television series over the past few decades, one of the things I've noticed is that the series I've been most drawn to are those that feature a cast whose chemistry off the set translates beautifully to the small screen as well. The Menu definitely fell into this category and for me, the chemistry within the Smartpost team (especially among the 'Fantastic Four') was one of the things I loved most about the series. Though the cast was changed slightly in the movie (referring only to Smartpost team here), the chemistry between them was definitely still there.
· As a history fanatic, I love it when TV series or movies reference real life events or points in history that serve as inspiration / motivation for particular actions that the characters take or that shape the lives they end up living (though it has to be done well and accurately of course). In the series, there were 2 historical references that played a significant role, not just in shaping the characters, but also thematically in the plot. The first was the significance of the date October 16th, 1968 in reference to athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics and the second was reference to Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa's famous quote: "If your photographs aren't good enough, you're not [standing] close enough." [I don't intend on going into detail about the significance of these 2 references in the series – if you're interested in knowing, then go watch the series or for those who have watched but forgot, then re-watch episodes 5 and 6 especially.] In the movie, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Pun Man Hung kept the same stylistic approach by referencing conservationist Kevin Kelly, his magazine Whole Earth Review, and the photograph that was a source of inspiration for one of the major turning points in the plot.
· Another aspect of the movie I loved was the production team's recreation of the Smartpost office setting that mirrored almost exactly with the series, complete with each of the characters' distinctive personal touches. The aesthetics were an important component to all of HKTV's series and the story behind The Menu's setting in the series was one of the most talked about back then. Again, I won't get into details since I already covered most of this in previous blog posts about the series. As a fan though, I was extremely moved to see the effort in recreating the familiar Smartpost setting in conjunction with how it looked in the series. [With that said though, I do have one very minor "complaint" – I noticed that the Smartpost team switched to doing their group meetings in a sectioned off area out on the floor rather than in a conference room like in the series. I miss that conference room, lol!]
· Fellow fans with whom I watched and discussed the series several years back will probably remember our "obsession" with the song Can't Let Go from the series and the great lengths we went to find out everything we could about the song, which ended up rubbing off on the cast and crew as well (I still remember Greg, Catherine, and Kate talking about it during that meme interview and also HKTV addressing it on Facebook as well as other social media). The music component was more subtle in the movie than it was in the series, but still played an important role nonetheless. I was happy to see that Kong Fai took up the role of music director once again for the movie (fellow HKTV fans will probably understand my feelings on this). And even though Eva Chan didn't participate in the filming this time around, her new song We're Not Afraid was featured in the closing credits. Eva actually composed the music and wrote the lyrics for the song and it was sung by her as well as the 3 main leads (Catherine, Greg, and Kate) -- another beautiful song with meaningful, heartfelt lyrics that fit perfectly with the movie!
· The format of the credits was similar to how it was in the series in terms of listing everyone's names in both Chinese and English (this is something that I commented a few years back that TVB has never done and still doesn't care enough to do even now, much to the chagrin of overseas audiences like me). Initially, when I started watching the movie, I was actually paying very close attention to the characters names because I thought that when the credits rolled around, I would have to "manually" match up the names to the artists so I could figure out who the "newbies" were and also familiarize myself with artists I didn't know (this is something I've always done out of habit, whether watching TV series or movies). With the movie though, it turns out I didn't have to do this after all, as the production team took it one step further in that each of the characters' roles were also listed out in parenthesis next to the characters' names so it was easy to identify which artists played what role and match face to name. I wasn't expecting this at all (though I should've known better considering how, in the series, they actually featured pictures of the artist next to each character name in the credits, lol), so I was once again pleasantly surprised. Though the production of the movie had nothing to do with HKTV, I couldn't help being reminded of one of the core elements that had set HKTV apart from their competition back then: the sincerity and meticulous concern for quality in a production – a concept that is virtually unheard of nowadays, both in the HK television and movie industry (as well as the music industry to some extent).
When I finished watching the movie, I actually felt a bit sad. This sadness had nothing to do with the plot or even the movie itself technically. Watching the movie brought back all the memories from 3 to 4 years ago of the whole free-to-air TV license saga and HKTV's efforts to revitalize the ailing HK television industry. This made me think once again about "what could have been" – if HKTV had gotten a license and would've been able to film season 2 of The Menu as originally planned, how would that have been like? As much as I don't feel as strongly opposed to the movie being made now as I did originally (again, since I've talked about this before, I won't rehash the argument here), I still feel that, taken as a whole, the movie didn't have as much of an impact as the series did. Of course, there are valid reasons for this (including the fact that TV audience tastes are different from movie audiences), but in keeping with the overall sentiment of this post, I am speaking from the personal perspective of a fan. While the movie was absolutely a sincere effort production-wise and I definitely appreciate everything that Pun Man Hung and Ben Fong did to give the movie the same "look and feel" as the series, it is still not the same at the end of the day. I still prefer having a continuation of The Menu via TV series rather than a movie -- I know this will never happen, but my sentiment is still the same regardless.