Sitisiri Mongkolsiri’s Netflix movie “Hunger” is a play on the word, reflecting the literal and metaphorical sense of what Hunger can mean. For the poor, Hunger is the burning sensation of an empty stomach that craves succor so that sleep can arrive as an escape from the realities of poverty. For the wealthy, Hunger is the craving the elites have to exhibit their wealth to others and remind everyone of their social standing in the world. In Mongkolsiri’s movie, Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying plays the role of Aoy, a cook in her family’s restaurant who gets a ticket to escape poverty and achieve fame. Aoy does accept the offer, and for a while, she lives a life of success, but she chooses to return to her roots by the end of the movie. Let’s find out why.
Like several street-side fast-food joints that rely on oily and unhealthy food made with a lot of spices, Aoy’s family-run restaurant Shuyou specializes in popular Thai items like Pad See You and Rad Na, and all the cooking is done by the protagonist, Aoy. Her dreams are forced to take a backseat as Aoy has to fulfill her responsibilities as the oldest child and create the same dishes for the same group of people, with seemingly no light at the end of her tunnel of drudgery. She regrets being stuck in this dead-end fast-food restaurant joint and would’ve probably submitted to the life of frying oil on the wok all day and earning a bare minimum for a living until a man hands her a card with the name of an organization called Hunger, where Chef Paul is the head chef.
Aoy’s risk-taking attitude in making fried rice using the fire does earn her a spot-on Chef Paul’s team, and moments after putting on the Hunger uniform, she begins dreaming of a much better life. Paul ensures to bring her several notches down the next moment by asking her to fry A5 Wagyu beef exactly how he wants it, and initially, Aoy surrenders and is on her way out when something clicks in her, and she returns. This might be the desperation that makes every poverty-stricken person want to escape the hurdles and helplessness that poverty invites, and she gives the beef another try. Through her overnight efforts and multiple boils on either arm, Aoy secures her spot in Paul’s crew, and that evening, for the first time as a cook, she earns praise from the elites of society for frying the Wagyu beef.
Like anyone who receives a little too much in too little time, the success quickly goes to Aoy’s head, and she begins arguing with Paul when he asks her to take out the trash one day when there’s nothing for her to fry. Once again, Paul reminds her of her station with no minced words, thereby helping her understand that Aoy is but an urchin in a sea dominated by whales like Paul. The experience of receiving a round of applause from the elites of society puts a spell on Aoy, and she starts distinguishing herself from her friends and family. Aoy is disgusted to see her brother Au eat a grotesque dish and ignores him when he says that, unlike the rich, he eats to survive. Aoy once more tries showing off her brilliance to her family by serving them fantastic pork, but she is irritated when Au finds it no different to the cheap pork found in street joints. Again and again, Aoy is made to witness how the people from the social strata that she comes from find happiness in the simplest of recipes, like her grandmother’s traditional ‘crybaby noodles,’ which the entire family relishes over Aoy’s fancy pork. It’s a rather important lesson that Aoy’s not mature enough to understand yet, but she will in time.
At her heart, though, Aoy is a kind woman who takes pity on the helpless Chef Paul, who has neither friends nor loved ones to bring him home-cooked food, so she prepares crybaby noodles for him. This devotion for Paul does stop when the Hunger team is taken on a hunting trip, Paul’s employer kills an endangered species of hornbill, and the head chef finds nothing immoral about it. Aoy dumps her Hunger uniform and takes up an offer a businessman named Tos has made her, and soon enough, she’s the head chef of a restaurant named Flame. She’d quickly realized that financial opulence is the single most important thing in the world, and it’s because of her financial insecurity that her ailing father is placed in the general ward after undergoing a bypass surgery. Aoy understands the need to acquire wealth and begins leading her Flame crew, and it doesn’t take long for her to mimic the same horrible behavior that Paul would direct at his crew as her fame keeps spreading across Thailand.
This is the height of Aoy’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of her culinary career, and even though she’s higher than she’d ever thought of being, she feels it’s rather lonely up there. When her brother asks her to come home now that she’s proven everything she had to, she rejects his offer, saying she’s just starting out. Of course, it’s portrayed in a manner to exhibit how family should be placed before everything, and the ‘right’ choice for Aoy would have been to throw away her ticket to success and be miserable with her family once again, but is it really? Would anyone who gets to head a huge restaurant and is just at the start of her career after years of hardship be able to throw away everything because their family members are lonely? Would the logical choice not be to uplift the family so that they never have to spend their lives in such drudgery again? However, this isn’t the message Mongkolsiri is propounding, and it shows.
The showdown between Aoy and her former boss, Chef Paul, happens at a party hosted by Madam Milky, where both chefs present their magnum opus dishes, but Paul attracts the crowd with the simplest of dishes just because he’s the known face. However, the police arrive, as a video has gone viral of Paul cooking the hornbill in the forest because Tone—Aoy’s lover—released the clip to help her. Aoy is disillusioned by the hedonistic activities of the rich and the obscenities that wealth allows, and she decides she’s done with this life. While coming back home, montages of how the impoverished live, with the homeless surviving on scraps and people sitting by the roadside to eat street food, are presented in gritty detail as rodents crawl through vegetables. The protagonist comes home and says she’s going to be the chef of Shuyou and prepares crybaby noodles for her family.
Aoy has finally learned that true happiness comes from being tied to one’s roots and never forgetting the place where one belongs, and she finds joy when she begins cooking the dish that her family loves, foregoing the rich and expensive dishes for the wealthy. Sure, the message is convoluted because Aoy abandons her probably million-dollar paycheck future to be with her family, but the movie shows the importance of family over running for success.