Tuesday, September 28, 2010

EIFF: Soul Kitchen

It can feel a bit callous to dislike a Fatih Akin film, particularly one like Soul Kitchen, a frenetic comedy that tries so very hard to inject a little bit of mirth into the joy-sucking void of early 21st century living. But it’s also that same earnest effort that makes Akin so hard to enthuse over. Like his previous film—low-key cross-border drama The Edge of HeavenSoul Kitchen is well-meaning and well-crafted and, well, lifeless.

Not that the film lacks for energy. The plot piles up with eccentric characters and sudden complications, operating under the principle that a lack of anything to say is best hidden beneath a cloud of noise. The story revolves around the titular Soul Kitchen, a restaurant run by Zinos, a Greek man who wants to finally pull the struggling business into shape so that he can leave it in the hands of his brother and run off to China to reunite with his reporter girlfriend. The expected colorful cast of broad types duly arrive to entertain us, whether we like it or not—the criminal brother and his cronies, a crusty old captain who lives in the restaurant, the fiercely principled gypsy chef with a fondness for knife throwing, the raunchy, scheming old school friend, and so on.

Madcap farce can be a kind of music created out of voice and movement. When it’s working, the audience is swept along, startled by its whirlwind incidents, which are completely unexpected and yet somehow logical. But in Soul Kitchen, the humour is too often predictable and flat, each setup telegraphing an all-too-obvious payoff. I found myself tapping my foot during the film—not to the music, unfortunately, but impatiently as I waited for Akin to finally reach the expected conclusion of each gag. Given the retro stylings of the film, there’s perhaps a touch of ironic self-awareness to these stale jokes, a winking “This is so obvious and corny that it’s almost funny.” I suppose that’s a kind of humour, but I also think I would rather the film was just plain, old-fashioned funny.

Still, there’s something vaguely appealing in Akin’s social mishmash, where a Greek restaurateur can go with a German physiotherapist to see a Turkish healer, and real estate tycoons and tax collectors can party with ex-cons and squatters. Music and food are mediums of cultural exchange, where different groups express themselves and swap ideas. Akin seems aware of this, which is perhaps why bringing in live music and authentic ethnic food saves the restaurant. Too bad he provide us with recycled pratfalls—a key scene for the plot involves Zinos throwing out his back while trying to lift something heavy by himself—instead of some fresh and funny insights into these colliding cultures. I’m not asking for more earnest drama from the director, but I do expect something beyond this empty energy. Doesn't he have anything to bring to the table?

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