With the help of real-life chef 100 Mahaseth’s Chalee Kader, thai director Sitisiri Mongkolsiri cooks up a delicious and thought-provoking thriller.
Hunger Chows Down on Class Divide
Thailand’s cuisine finally gets its due with Sitisiri Mongkolsiri’s latest film Hunger, a thrilling film that goes between the worlds of street food and high-end restaurants. Hunger follows Aoy (Chutimon “Aokbab” Chuengcharoensukying), a young street food chef in Bangkok who spends her days making delicious noodle dishes in her family-run restaurant. When Tone (Gunn Svasti), a sous-chef from the infamous luxury chef Paul’s (Nopachai “Peter” Jayanama) table team “Hunger,” has a taste of Aoy’s cooking, he invites her into his dangerous world.
Writer and producer Kongdej Jaturanrasmee developed the film when he saw an absence of cinema around the artistry and consumption of Thai cuisine. “Over the past few years, the entire world — and Thailand in particular — has entered a renaissance of sorts with food. We’re seeing reviews of all kinds of food posted by so many people, from street food all the way to fine dining,” says Jaturanrasmee. “Food is the most accessible form of joy for most people, but at the same time, we also have restaurants with extremely long queues. It feels to me like there is also a hierarchy in the consumption of food and its industry. That’s where the main concept came from.”
Director Mongkolsiri was similarly inspired by the themes that could be explored in a narrative centered on food. “Food can be a figurative device to tell a story about our hunger and desire,” he describes. “The movie explores a kind of hunger that goes beyond food and reflects deeply human emotions. People can eat until they are full, but they may still be hungry for acceptance, fame, love, and more.”
Aoy’s character is brought to the screen by award-winning actress Chuengcharoensukying (Bad Genius, Happy Old Year), who was drawn to the opportunity to share the cuisine and culture of her home country onscreen. “Presenting street food through movies is very impressive, and that’s not just for me. All my friends in other countries love Thai street food,” she says. “Besides trying something new in cooking and gaining new experiences from this movie, I could present Thainess and Thai street food which is so cool. There’s so much more to discover in Thai food and the chef world.”
Authenticity is a key ingredient in filmmaking, just as it is in cooking, which led the filmmakers to bring in a partner for assistance. “I don’t cook, so my first thought was to find chefs with the expertise to help out in this movie,” says Mongkolsiri, who sought out celebrated Bangkok chef Chalee Kader of Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant 100 Mahaseth to advise on the film. “Chef Chalee is the main food designer for the movie, and he joined the project from the very beginning so we could learn more about food through him and his network of connections. We learned that food nowadays is a form of art, with a lot of detail in terms of ingredients, cooking methods, and seasoning. Thanks to Chef Chalee’s help, the movie came out really well.”
Hunger’s filmmakers also leaned on the chef for practical, on set support. Casting actors instead of professional chefs meant there were two options: They could substitute chefs for the cooking scenes or give actors a crash course in culinary arts. Jaturanrasmee and Mongkolsiri went with the latter and set up a cooking workshop, led by Chef Chalee, for all of the actors who’d be working in the fictional kitchen. “I was part of the cooking workshop from late February all the way to the end of the shoot,” says Svasti of his training. “I had my nails chipped on the first day there, and I got cut more often than anyone else. But I think it was great because this workshop made the actors less nervous and more confident in their performances. As acting consists of both action and dialogue, we shouldn’t have to worry too much about what we do as our characters. When we were confident in our cooking skills, the overall performance came out more smoothly.” Svasti’s co-star Jayanama, who plays the esteemed Chef Paul, was keenly aware of how much confidence was required for the role. “Dome [director Mongkolsiri] would take close-up shots when I was cooking, so it was very visible on the screen whenever my hands trembled or I lost confidence,” he recalls. “A real chef would not be shaking, so I had to overcome these feelings in my mind in order to film those scenes. When I could do it, it felt good.”
While the actors who were playing members of the Hunger team were learning the high-end skills necessary for portraying a chef’s table team, Chuengcharoensukying needed another side of cooking training to portray Aoy’s roots as an amateur chef working in her family restaurant. For this, the actress was sent to a roadside noodle shop. “Once while I was making noodles and frying rice, a customer came in and ordered some gravy noodles,” she says. “The experience was so real that I almost gave the customer their bill myself.”
The training was physically demanding for the actress who gained ten pounds for the role. “At first, I couldn’t lift the pan because it was so heavy, so I had to strengthen my muscles,” she explains. “I even used the wok as a makeshift weight for my exercises so that I could get used to it. Later on, I could carry it more easily all day long.” Chuengcharoensukying learned wok skills, slicing techniques including julienne and bâtonnet, and how to work with fire. “I gradually learned the pace and rhythm of cooking and had muscle memory of doing it. Every time I portrayed the character Aoy, I felt like I could overcome anything and do what Aoy could do every time. Aoy has taken me to places I’ve never been before, in a good way. All of the struggle, effort, sincerity, and other aspects of this character have really lifted me up and pushed me forward.”
The efforts of the cast and crew resulted in a scrumptious film, ready to be devoured. Hunger showcases the beauty and the burns of the culinary world while exploring themes of social class and opportunity. “It’s really full of flavors,” says Chuengcharoensukying of the film. “And viewers can enjoy the story line that happens through food, and indulge in the experiences that resonate with you.”