A Chinese adaptation of the Japanese manga by Yarō Abe, Midnight Diner is a new ensemble drama about the bizarre ways in which fate unites humanity. Although the film does share many of the same issues that plague similar movies approaching these themes, it is ultimately harmless and sweet.
The film is set in a diner run by a mysterious chef, only open from midnight to seven in the morning, as various patrons come in and out of the diner, sharing their stories with each other. As such, the movie is comprised of the different anecdotes being relayed by the diner’s patrons. None of the stories are particularly substantial or impactful, nor is there anything about them that is exceptionally entertaining, yet they are light and bouncy enough to be fully diverting.
However, since none of the stories are particularly weighty, one can’t help but feel like this film was missing something. There is an undeniable charm about the movie’s warm-hearted optimism, and that is what keeps the film moving, but there simply isn’t enough narrative momentum in the anecdotes to be self-sustaining. The best anthology movies feel cohesive, and while the diner thread does a good enough job of tying things together, the stories still feel like individual segments tied together rather than a united whole.
Additionally, the thematic ground which the film covers is not anything particularly new. There have been multiple movies in recent years which show characters gaining a renewed lust for life thanks to the guidance of a wise figure (frequently the personification of fate), most of which are maudlin and ridiculous. Midnight Diner adds nothing new to the conversation, though the uplifting message may be inspiring to those who are currently going through a rough period in their life.
Another issue with the film that is common to the style is that the character development is weak. Due to the relatively large ensemble and mostly inconsequential stories, the characters do not have enough depth to be particularly compelling. Even the “Master”, the central figure of the movie, is not developed in a way that is remotely interesting, which is surprising.
Also disappointing is that the ensemble is disappointingly weak for an ensemble-driven film. Granted, the source material was previously adapted into television melodramas in multiple Asian countries (including China), so the over-the-top performances do have some context, but the delivery is often distractingly cheesy. The only performance that has subtlety is that of Tony Leung Ka-Fai (who also directed the movie) as Master, though that may be attributed more to underuse.
On a technical level, the film feels rather haphazard. Since this is Leung’s directorial debut, some slack can be given, but the movie’s biggest sin is that it seems to lack ambition. Everything about the film, from the editing to the cinematography, feels industrial and devoid of love. Even the shots of food, which very well could have been the movie’s saving grace, feel like an uninspired afterthought.
Midnight Diner is good enough for what it is. As a melodrama, it is saccharine and wholesome. That said, when put under scrutiny, the film lacks the depth or emotional engagement that would have made it stand out from other similarly-themed movies.
Midnight Diner is now playing in theaters.