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"Chef" Overfeeds Gourmet Drama

2007/10/25 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Inspired by the phenomenally popular comic series of the same name, "Le Grand Chef" (Sikgaek) offers an "Iron Chef"-style edge that dashes through an explosively colorful array of Korean dishes. Revolving around a fierce cooking competition, "Chef " is stimulating throughout, but is ultimately more "gluttonous" than tasteful.

A Japanese man has stepped forward to redeem past evils involving the chef to Korea's last emperor Seonjong, and a nationwide culinary battle ensues. Archenemies Seong-chan (Kim Kang-woo) and Bong-ju (Im Won-hee) rekindle their longstanding rivalry as they sharpen their knives. Five years before, the two had competed to take over Unamjeong, a renowned Korean restaurant. But Seong-chan suffers a critical blow when his blowfish dish poisons the jurors. Distraught, he retires to the countryside, while Bong-ju exploits the wealth and fame of his inheritance.

With the help of Jin-su (Lee Ha-na), a pretty, energetic reporter, Seong-chan makes a comeback. But now, he must not only battle the blindly ambitious Bong-ju, but also face the corrupt jurors and take care of his Alzheimer-struck grandfather, and also take a few moments to contemplate the budding romance with Jin-su. The film stuffs in so much drama, including a tangled history involving the two main characters' grandfathers, with the dizzying gastronomic visuals, that it becomes slightly overwhelming.

"Most films dealing with this subject focus on the aesthetics of cooking and food, but we wanted to focus on the intimate connection between cooks and food ingredients", director Jeon Yoon-soo told reporters after a recent press preview.

"Chef" makes that point shockingly clear, as its first scene unfolds with a huge butcher knife beheading a blowfish. Like the hit TV series "Jewel in the Palace" ("Dae Jang Geum") the screen is indeed filled with sumptuous dishes like the blowfish sushi (more than a million won per plate), beef carpaccio and gujeolpan, a royal court dish. It is also sprinkled with everyday favorites like doenjangjjigae (bean curd soup) and ramyeon.

The fiery food competition scenes are pieced together with mosaic-like sequences, evoking its comic book origin, but is surprisingly unappetizing. The most disturbing part involves the slaughtering of a pet cow, which must be sacrificed for the honor of his owner Seong-chan. This emotionally riveting scene shows how a chef must overcome personal feelings toward cows and other such animals that land on the table.

"When we were actually shooting the slaughterhouse scene, Seong-sun (the name of the cow) was extremely stressed and had actually lost about 30 kilograms that day because it was terrified it might be slaughtered right there", actor Kim Kang-woo said.

Besides the tear-jerking moments, the movie is spiked with slapdash comedy. It offers rather primitive black and white plot elements amid the rainbow-hued food scenes. Bong-gu, for example is completely contemptible much like his greasy hairstyle, as he bribes jurors among other wrongdoings.

But the film is indeed spiced with some good old humor. Two "Dumb and Dumber" buddies, an abused househusband and ramyeon-obsessed prankster, shadow the main characters. Slices of picturesque scenes -- rolling Sunflower fields and other watercolor painting-like landscapes -- allow the audience respite from the otherwise stuffy gastronomic experience.

Rather than "bon appetit", be ready for a cinematic feast that may not suit all palates.

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