In Chinese tradition, the 15th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar is known as Ghost Day and the entire seventh month is considered the Ghost Month. During this time, spirits and ghosts, including those of ancestors, are believed to emerge from the underworld. This day also marks the celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Jun Cho’s film incorporates this concept into the culturally diverse Malaysia, with food playing a significant role.
A young woman, Bonnie, operates a food truck called Hungry Ghost Diner in Kuala Lumpur. She is struggling to cope with the loss of her mother and find purpose in her life. The story begins during the Ghost Festival, where Bonnie is pressured by Kit, a man interested in bringing culinary entrepreneurship to a new food court, even though she is not enthusiastic about it. On the same night, her uncle Ah Kiu, who she has not seen in a long time, visits her food truck and reminds her to always pursue her dreams, despite issues with her father. This leads her to Behrang, where her family owns a cafe, but she gets into a big argument with her father. Due to a sudden lockdown, she is stuck in Behrang and discovers that she can see ghosts. Many of her deceased relatives and others appear at night, searching for closure.
In his first feature film, Jun Cho presents a story that combines elements of family drama, coming-of-age, and ghost stories. The movie also heavily focuses on the significance of food, which serves as the foundation for these other themes to unfold. As Bonnie interacts with various ghosts, especially her uncle, she begins to understand and embrace her family’s heritage. This newfound awareness allows her to appreciate Chinese culinary traditions and come to terms with the loss of her mother and her father’s behavior. The journey she embarks on ultimately leads to her maturity and is cleverly presented through the lens of a ghost story with a light-hearted tone, making it one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film.
However, this approach also leads to one of the main problems of the movie. The mixing of genres, lack of impactful drama, and misplaced comedy make it challenging to follow, especially for those unfamiliar with Chinese culture. Additionally, the pacing and structure of the script also contribute to these issues, especially in the middle portion of the movie.
However, the production quality is quite high, thanks to elements such as vibrant neon lights, intense red hues, skillful use of shadows, Robin Nevis’s production design, and Teck Tan’s cinematography. These elements come together to create a series of striking images, particularly in scenes set at night. The use of puppetry also adds to the visual appeal and showcases the talent in this area.
Bonnie, portrayed by Keat Yoke Chen, delivers a captivating performance as she navigates her internal battles and copes with the challenges in her life. Her conflicts with her father, played by Eric Chen, are particularly noteworthy due to his strong acting skills. Sam Chong shines as Ah Kiu, bringing a ghostly influence to his mentoring role. Fabian Loo adds a touch of humor as Kit.
Ultimately, the movie “Hungry Ghost Diner” is a combination of both positive and negative elements. While it presents intriguing concepts, impressive visuals, and convincing acting, it also suffers from problems in its script and direction.