A couple of days ago I finished a Korean drama by the name of 발효 가족. Literally "Fermented Family", but it's also translated as "Kimchi Family", as fermentation is the process by which kimchi is created, and from a non-Korean perspective "kimchi" makes for an exotic enough title on its own. The show is, unsurprisingly, largely about food. The second and third lead characters are sisters whose familial legacy is a traditional Korean restaurant, 천지인 (Heaven, Earth and Man), located in a forested, mountain area. Many scenes in the series consist of food preparation, and there's a strong intimacy in these scenes that makes the title's difficult linguistic translation quite logical. The extended food preparation scenes are detailed to the point that you could probably reproduce the dishes yourself if you have a good enough culinary eye.
However, the camerawork is detailed far beyond simply being able to provide a kimchi preparation documentary. What really got me interested in this show was the cinematography. Nearly every shot is fantastic. The camera greatly captures the natural mountain environment. And even though winter has nothing to do with the plot (it's just when they happened to film the show), the beauty of snowfall and its affect on surrounding landscapes is profoundly stated and well-integrated into the emotional feeling of the scenes. The work is probably a bit easier for me to appreciate, as I couldn't focus on the actual dialogue as well a native speaker, but there are multiple scenes where there are no words. Only the camerawork, the ambient music, and the expression of the actors are used for communication, and this alone tells us quite a bit.
I suspect the director and editor have a lot of broad experience in this regard. What made me want to finish the first episode was a fight scene in the first episode where the main character fights a couple dozen other members of his gang all by himself. This scene moves literally at a very fast clip, and yet I fully understood everything that was going on. I even figured out the math and realized when the fight was over, simultaneously disappointed that the scene was so short and amazed that I understood everything that had happened so quickly. I should note, with some irony, that no other scene anything like this happens during the rest of the series. It was the hook that got me interested, and led me want to see more of the cinematography, performances, and obviously, plot.
The main character is a gangster by the name of Ho Tae. He sees a television report about the restaurant and is troubled by how familiar it is- he was orphaned at the age of four and remembers little about what happened to him before then. After a falling out with his gang he becomes involved with the restaurant to try and figure out what his connection is. This mystery forms the basis of the main plot. The rest of the story consists of multiple sub-plots, most of which don't even have anything to do with the mystery. What they all have in common is solidarity with the story's main narrative themes- regret, forgiveness, and acceptance.
The story isn't really defined by extended conflict- the mystery behind Ho-Tae's past is about as close we get to that, and that's largely because the truth behind it is much more obscured than any of the other plotlines. Usually when an issue in the plot comes up, it's more-or-less resolved after a few episodes. In the first episode, for example, one of the sisters is taking care of a baby that was abandoned at the restaurant. We find out exactly where the baby came from and why by the end of the second episode- and the denoument for this ties in directly to the themes I outline above.
All of the show's dozen-or-more plotlines resolve in pretty much the same way along narrative themes, although the exact execution varies quite a bit. This might sound boring, and it is- if you define excitement as only being about conflict. What made this show interesting for me is that the plot manages to take resolution – usually the part of the story we care the least about – and makes it the part the viewer really wants to see. Not only did I find this very entertaining, when I thought about it, this was also perfectly logical. In real life, when we have serious problems like those faced by people on the show, we usually try to solve or at least come to terms with them quickly, because living in a state of uncertainty is very emotionally painful. The plot's constant embrace of catharsis is a very sharp, hopeful relief against the tribulations that come from just living life.
Much of this is reenforced by the music. As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of scenes where there isn't even any dialogue at all, so effective music is essential to the scenes working well. This isn't just for the more emotional, introspective scenes, but also the upbeat tunes played during the cooking montages, and the rising action pieces for when the show hits a plot-critical moment. At all points the music does a great job. The closest the show comes to an annoying song is the love theme, although partially this is just because the extended "사랑해" (I love you) that makes up the chorus sounds over-the-top even to me. Once I get past this, though, and think of the song in terms of related movements in the love story, it ends up coming off quite sweetly.
Indeed, in less capable hands, I would have been rolling my eyes at this song. The love story here, though, doesn't follow the typical romance tropes of passion, wackiness, and drama, though the first episode makes it seem as if this is what will happen. The build-up is very subtle. The intimacy of the characters is communicated primarily through hugs, hand-holding, and general precious moments that establish the strength and trust of their bond, even in emotionally difficult times. There are only two kisses throughout the series- however, one of these is without a doubt the greatest kiss I have ever seen on television. The emotional build-up really sells it- the elements behind the kiss are already in the story, we're practically just waiting for it to happen. The camerawork and music just make it better. And even after the kiss is over, we get to see what the characters do for the next few minutes after the greatest kiss of their lives- it's such good comedic fodder I'm surprised writers don't use it more often.
I can strongly recommend Fermentation Family based on its interesting use of narrative elements coupled with the clear technical skills that were used in completing the production. Even as just general information on parts of Korean culture, it works rather well. Most Korean restaurants are not so elaborate as Heaven, Earth, and Man, but they're about as rustic. Most importantly, though, there's a strong sense of family and the importance of sticking together to get through the difficult times and make our own happier ones. It's a very sweet message that's all the stronger because it works in spite of the drama in the main plot. Indeed, the ending is uplifting not so much because of events in the climax, but rather because the ability of the characters to endure these difficulties makes it clear that they can take anything else that comes their way- though for the foreseeable future they won't have to. I don't know well actual Koreans do adhering to these ideals. I still greatly appreciate that this kind of thinking is being perpetrated as an ideal at all.
By William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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"[Guest Review] "Fermented Family""
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