Eating gourmet can kill you. So discovers wealthy businessman Chen Jiaqiao (Francis Ng) in Deadly Delicious, the debut film of screenwriter and commercial director Zhao Tianyu. Life seems pretty good for Jiaqiao; he's dating a pretty air hostess named Coco (Jiang Yiyan) plus he has enough money to buy her an apartment as a surprise gift. However, Jiaoqiao is given to occasional moodiness and sometimes goes missing for periods of time. Coco isn't sure how to keep him satisfied - and she sure can't do it with her cooking. He's a gourmet, but she serves up instant noodles in temporary plastic containers, which sometimes ticks him off. Obviously her culinary skills - both in preparation and presentation - severely lack.
Luckily, Coco meets gourmet chef Gu Xiaofan (Yu Nan of Tuya's Marriage), who provides Coco with numerous delicious Chinese recipes designed to satisfy Jiaqiao's picky palate and stimulate his sexual desires. Xiaofan's help comprises more than providing recipes; she frequently prepares the key ingredients and hands them off to Coco, taking apparent enjoyment in the collaboration between the two women. The plan is a startling success; Jiaqiao consumes her gourmet cooking lustily, and a relationship that appeared unstable suddenly finds new life. Jiaqiao now seems perfectly content with his beautiful young girlfriend.
However, Jiaqiao is struck with sudden physical pains, plus his eyebrows and hair begin to thin, and he begins to feel weak. Consultations with doctors yield proposed remedies, but few actual cures. Finally, during an acupuncture treatment, one doctor discovers that Jiaqiao has been poisoned, and he immediately blames Coco's new gourmet cooking habits. But it's not all on Coco. A combination of foods is killing Jiaqiao; besides what Coco feeds him, there must be other food that's adding to the lethal cocktail in his bloodstream. Where is the offending food coming from, and is there a conspiracy afoot to somehow poison him? And is Gu Xiaofan really who she claims to be?
Duh, of course she isn't. Deadly Delicious is tough to talk about without dispensing spoilers - though revealing a few spoilers is necessary or there would be no hook to potentially attract an audience. When Coco first meets Xiaofan, it's plainly obvious that Xiaofan is up to no good, and her actual identity would be a surprise to only the most inattentive of cinema readers. She obviously has some stake in the affair between Jiaqiao and Coco, and since she's the supplier of some of Jiaqiao's poisonous foods, she should be aware of what her carefully concocted menu of death can do. With that mystery easily guessed, the only thing left to discover is the reason behind this poison plan. What did Jiaqiao do to deserve death by five-star Chinese food?
Deadly Delicious is best seen in a cold viewing - that is, taking in the film without any previous knowledge of the plot or characters. If one manages to do that, they might find themselves involved by the tasty-looking dishes, deliberate pacing and portentous plot reveals. The revelations arrive slowly but surely, and director Zhao Tianyu generates interest and suspense thanks to the exotic recipes and the unsettling storyline. There's some human horror at play here, and Zhao's sedate storytelling allows the film to creep along, engaging and also repelling the viewer. Each character possesses understandable emotions and sometimes a cold-blooded inhumanity that can be chilling. In the end, few characters are really blameless, and everybody who deserves to get theirs, does. This is a China movie after all.
The acting helps. Jiang Yiyan is fine in her role, and both Yu Nan and Francis Ng - who apparently did not dub his own Mandarin - are able to give their unsympathetic characters some dimension. However, both remain somewhat distant from the audience such that the film affects less than it probably could. Deadly Delicious is an interesting little thriller, but it's also a slight letdown. Numerous times, Zhao Tianyu has the opportunity steer the film in a darker, more unsettling direction, but the film settles on predictable morality and rather unsurprising revelations. The movie is still a better-than-average thriller, and the food angle is both clever and engaging. However, the filmmakers don't fully take advantage of their premise. In the hands of a more daring director, Deadly Delicious could have been exceptional, as it uses common themes - food and relationships - to essentially tell a human horror story. Unfortunately, the film never really digs that deep. Deadly Delicious is intriguing and unsettling, but ultimately not as tasty as its title might suggest. (Kozo 2008)