Michael Hui and Clifton Ko's 1988 comedy Chicken and Duck Talk is relevant even today. About a roast duck restaurant threatened by the opening of a nearby fried chicken fast food joint, the film is an enjoyable laffer that serves up plenty of the slapstick, overacting and situation comedy that fans of Hong Kong comedies are used to. However, the film also qualifies as an accurate if exaggerated primer on the daily lives and ingrained values of Hong Kong people. Chicken and Duck Talk handles real Hong Kong topics and satirizes how Hong Kongers can be conniving, generous, despicable, loyal, duplicitous and admirable – and often all the same time. This is a film that's rich with local detail, and one that should be considered far above its contemporaries as a Hong Kong Cinema classic.
Michael Hui co-wrote the script and stars as Hui, the owner of Ah Hui’s Restaurant, a Hong Kong-style café specializing in roast duck. Despite being popular, the restaurant is questionably run: service is spotty, hygiene is the pits, and when customers find cockroaches in their soup, the employees go to exceptional lengths to deny or destroy the evidence. Hui is a tight-fisted boss, giving poor bonuses and routinely cajoling his employees into accepting crappy working conditions. Not that Hui is entirely at fault; his employees are lazy or greedy, and one (Lowell Lo) is even trying to steal Hui’s roast duck recipe to open his own business overseas. Hui fends off unhappy customers, grousing employees and the encroaching health board with admirable dexterity. For Hui, these daily crises are business as usual.
The status quo takes a hit when Danny’s Fried Chicken opens across the street. A KFC-like fried chicken restaurant chain, Danny’s is owned and operated by Poon (slimy Lawrence Ng) and his toadying number one (Guk Fung). Competition is fierce; a friendlier staff, a cleaner environment and more attractive food options for young people threaten Hui’s business, and he’s harried just trying to keep up with Danny’s daily promotions. Even worse, Hui loses formerly stalwart employee Cuttlefish (Ricky Hui) to Danny’s, and situations soon escalate to dangerously comic levels. Meanwhile, Hui has domestic issues; his wife (Sylvia Chang) asks Hui to consider a loan from her mother (Pak Yan) to renovate the restaurant, but Hui is too proud to listen. Which will be the first to cave: Hui or his business?
The conflict between ingrained cultural institutions like the Hong Kong-style café and corporate chains like McDonald’s and KFC has long been an issue in Hong Kong, and Chicken and Duck Talk smartly satirizes that situation. Also, Hui’s reactionary tactics are exaggerated Hong Kong business strategy, as he uses fast, cheap imitation as a way to somehow give his business an edge. Hui's pragmatic, penny-pinching ways are an exaggerated satire of Hong Kong people and the film's local pride – be it appropriate or inflated – is something very much a part of street-level Hong Kong life. The push and pull between east and west, the particular details of Chinese families, the local restaurant culture – all of this should be familiar. Chicken and Duck Talk is commercial cinema, but its representation of Hong Kong life is dead-on and surprisingly deep.
Where the film could have erred is with Michael Hui's character, who is so cheap, prideful and mouthy that he threatens to become unlikable. Scratch that, he is unlikable. However, Hui is a dexterous comedian, and manages to be endearing enough that when he swallows his pride and begrudgingly owns up to a few of his faults, it’s a welcome sight. His character is exaggerated, but the personality and social forces behind him are not. Ultimately, the character is not too far removed from reality. Everyday people can be as lousy as Hui, and the emotions they operate from are so basic that it’s easy to understand and even sympathize with them. People are naturally difficult and Michael Hui captures that reality clearly and with self-deprecating humor.
Chicken and Duck Talk has aged remarkably well. A product of the wild and wooly eighties brand of Hong Kong comedy, the film has sloppy production values, generous overacting and an egregious synth score. However, unlike numerous commercial comedies, which use generic situations to earn expected laughs, Chicken and Duck Talk possesses a cultural specificity and an incisive understanding of people. There’s truth behind the film’s commercial cinema flourishes on both a local and also universal level. One can enjoy the film for its situation comedy and common values, but a working knowledge of Hong Kong culture makes the film far richer and more valuable. Chicken and Duck Talk is funny but it’s also true, and is as much a document of Hong Kong as it is a crowd-pleasing comedy. Now and always, Hong Kong Cinema needs movies like this. (Kozo 1995/2011)