Actors Jin Gu, left, and Kim Jung-eun star as top chefs who compete to make the best kimchi in ``Le Grand Chef: Kimchi War,'' the sequel to the 2007 comic book-turned-film. / Courtesy of Lotte Entertainment
By Lee Hyo-won
Korea is home to sharp tongued power-bloggers that infiltrate the farthest ``matjip'' (reputed restaurants) with DSLR cameras in hand. It's no surprise that ``Sikgaek,'' one of the best-selling comics here, is devoted to the culinary arts, and fans were psyched to see adaptations on both the big and small screens, including the 2007 box office hit ``Le Grand Chef.''
The sequel ``Le Grand Chef: Kimchi War'' is finally in theaters, and as is apparent in the title it is devoted to the quintessential Korean dish.
For many non-Koreans, however, kimchi is an acquired taste, and the movie could well have remained limited to a regional appeal. But first-time director Baek Dong-hoon challenges the most pernickety of taste buds by offering a balanced diet of mouthwatering kimchi dishes and drama with universal themes.
If the first film offered a raw look into the cooking process, including the rather unappetizing aspects of it, ``Kimchi War'' focuses on soul food and soul-searching. Food is said to reflect a culture, and in the microcosmic realm of the family _ in the traditional sense _ there's nothing like mom's comfort food.
There isn't much one could do to whip up groundbreaking kimchi. But a well-made dish, with the perfect ripeness, could easily steal the limelight on any table. And so one can expect the expected in the script, but the talented cast will nevertheless pull at the heartstrings, and your appetite.
Jin Gu sheds his hardboiled image and brings an aura of softness to play the down-to-earth lead character. Seong-chan, who parted with his mother at a young age, grew up under the care of Jang-eun's (Kim Jung-eun) restaurateur mother. He has matured into a talented cook, but he is satisfied with making a humble living, selling vegetables from his truck.
Meanwhile, Jang-eun has overcome various racial and gender barriers to become the top chef in Japan. When she caters a diplomatic event, however, the Korean president is shocked when kimchi is introduced as ``kimuchi,'' what the Japanese call their version of the dish
The revival of stale political sentiments inspires a nationwide competition to push the globalization of kimchi, and Seong-chan and Jang-eun take sibling rivalry to the cutting board.
Even if the entirety of the film had been devoted to the most famous kind of kimchi _ the spicy red cabbage variety _ it would have been enough to fill a good two hours since it accompanies every meal from a bowl of instant noodles to a big buffet dinner.
But the movie reminds us that red pepper was introduced quite late in the 17th-century, whereas kimchi dates back to the 7th century. There are hundreds of different kinds, from white water-based recipes to modernized fusion treats.
It presents food as art, which is highlighted by the split-screen frames reminiscent of ``Iron Chef'' competitions. The entertainment factor lies in the juxtaposition of the main actors, the intuitive Seong-chang who allows gritty life lessons to rub off on his homey dishes, versus the cool-headed perfectionist Jang-eun who uses a measuring cup to whip up something deliciously modern.
But for these two contestants, it's not about the Grand Prix as much as it is about inheriting the rights to protect, or close down, their mother's restaurant. And moreover, it's about making amends with some painful childhood memories associated with kimchi.
Kimchi is a side dish. The pickled vegetables are often scooted to the side, but for most Koreans its absence is sorely felt. The dish has remained pretty much the same over the past few centuries, but it also faces the challenges of ``globalization.'' But one thing that does not change is the fond memories associated with soul food, and this is where the film finds its niche.
Distributed by Lotte Entertainment