Review: Netflix Thai Movie “Hunger” Uses Food to Examine Class Divides and Ambition

In Netflix’s food-centric film “Hunger”, actress Chutimon “Aokbab” Chuengcharoensukying shines as the lead in an eat-the-rich narrative.

By , 7 Apr 23 18:47 GMT
Courtesy of Netflix.

Netflix Thai movie Hunger joins Parasite, Triangle of Sadness, and the similarly food-themed The Menu as part of the latest cinematic wave highlighting class divides. Compared to those films though, Hunger especially excels in its visual juxtaposition of working class life with upper class life, and focus on the perils of ambition.

Set in Bangkok, Hunger follows an ambitious street cook named Aoy (played by Chutimon “Aokbab” Chuengcharoensukying of Bad Genius) who works at her family’s restaurant. Wanting to be “special”, Aoy accepts an invitation to train at Hunger, a famous private culinary team run by the famous but ruthless Chef Paul (Nopachai Chaiyanam). However, she soon discovers that being “elite” doesn’t necessarily mean being happy.

A cutting commentary on the class divide

Courtesy of Netflix.

Hunger puts the theme of class divide front and center, especially through its visual juxtaposition of working class versus “elite” dining.

The most visible example of this is the contrast between Aoy’s modest family restaurant and Hunger’s pristine kitchen. Aoy’s family restaurant is noisy, crowded and hot. It serves Thai comfort food, with signature recipes like pad see ew—reminiscent of Bangkok street food icon Jay Fai. The restaurant’s clientele are working class family and friends, who come to strengthen tight-knit bonds.

Hunger’s kitchen embodies the complete opposite ambience. It’s closed off, efficient, minimalistic, and sterile. It serves elite customers—billionaires, celebrities, politicians—who come not to feel comfortable but to boast and preen. Unlike Aoy’s family restaurant, Hunger also has internal hierarchies: head chef, sous chef, kitchen staff, and so forth.

Within this juxtaposition, director Sitisiri “Dom” Mongkolsiri fully leverages his background from the horror genre (ex. Inhuman Kiss, Girl from Nowhere) to create especially grotesque visuals. For instance, there’s a scene where rich diners in Hunger slurp up slices of expensive beef as bloody red sauce drips from their mouths. The film also contains elaborate set pieces that highlight the dramatism of class divides, whether it’s a pool party or a tragedy-tinged Greek-themed battle between Aoy and her mentor. Accompanying sound and clever editing make these sequences feel theatrical, much like the rich putting on shows to puff up their status.

It’s all an apt extended metaphor for very real class divides in Thailand, which the World Bank recently determined has the highest income inequality in the Asia Pacific region. The contrast between Aoy’s family restaurant and Hunger’s kitchen seems to also mirror competing egalitarian versus hierarchical worldviews that have polarized Thai politics, and been an undercurrent to the country’s various protest movements and coups over the past few decades. Food is an especially cutting dimension to explore these issues, given food insecurity spiked in Thailand during the COVID-19 pandemic and further exacerbated socioeconomic divides.

Hungry for more, thirsty for recognition

Courtesy of Netflix.

As Hunger’s title suggests, director Mongkolsiri also wants to look at hunger beyond food. Aoy embodies this exploration. As a firstborn child, she hungers to become someone “special”, whilst also balancing needs to provide for her younger siblings and potentially continue the family business.

Hunger sees Aoy’s attitudes towards ambition harden as she gets deeper into the cutthroat culinary world, but also offers emotional contrasts with her family life. Before getting scouted for Hunger, Aoy’s ambitions were more abstract; after seeing the extravagance of Hunger’s rich clients though, Aoy becomes tempted to get a taste of that wealth for herself. Her desire is strong enough that she persists despite constant berating from Hunger’s Chef Paul, and the entrenched toxic masculinity that real-world Thai female chefs (ex. Bee Satongun, whose rise from “street hawker to Michelin star” rather mirrors Aoy’s story) must contend with.

At the same time, the film questions whether Aoy’s ambitions will truly make her life better. We see how Aoy’s family and friends are content in simpler lives. For example, in one scene, Aoy’s father comments how he “doesn’t get the modern world” after trying an overrated coffee, and decides to find happiness by cooking some simple noodles instead. The staff of Hunger seem quite miserable in comparison—particularly Chef Paul, who has the anger of Gordon Ramsy and spits out quotes like “food represents social status, not love… food made with love doesn’t exist”. For Aoy, these perils of fame and success leave her alone and confused. Whether that loneliness is worth it is something that Hunger leaves open for contemplation.

All in all, Hunger is an appetizing look into pressing issues that underscore Thai society today. Through food, something that connects cultures and people, director Mongkolsiri crafts a story that many can connect with, regardless of background and status. Backed by sumptuous visuals and powerful performances from its cast—particularly Chutimon—Hunger leaves you full.

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Hunger (Thai: คนหิว เกมกระหาย)—Thailand. Dialog in Thai. Directed by Sittisiri “Dom” Mongkolsiri. Wide release on Netflix April 8, 2023. Running time 2hr 10 mins. Starring Chutimon “Aokbab” Chuengcharoensukying, Nopachai “Peter” Chaiyanam, Gunn Svasti Na Ayudhya, Bhumibhat “Aim” Thavornsiri, Varit “Pao” Hongsananda.

Hunger is now streaming worldwide on Netflix.

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