Although cooking may not sound like the most exciting subject for a film, Stephen Chow’s hilarious “God of Cookery” aside, “Le Grand Chef” from director Jeon Yoon Soo (previously responsible for “My Girl And I” and “Besa Me Mucho”) proved to be a big hit at the Korean box office. The reasons for this soon become clear upon viewing, as the film, which was based upon a popular comic by Hur Young Man, delivers a winning mixture of drama, good natured humour and of course, delicious looking Korean food.
The film starts with a flashback showing young chef Sung Chan (Kim Kang Woo, recently in “The Railroad”) being thrown out of the nation’s most prestigious culinary school for supposedly poisoning the judges of a competition to find its top talent. Five years later, running a rural restaurant, he is tempted to enter a national contest by feisty reporter Jin Soo (Lee Ha Na, “Alone In Love”), which brings him up against his old rival, the evil chef Bong Joo (Yim Won Hee, “No Comment”), who is now the head of the school. As the two try to defeat each other in the kitchen, a question arises as to which of them is the real heir to the country’s Royal Chef, a position which Bong is willing to do whatever it takes to snatch.
“Le Grand Chef” succeeds in part due to the fact that Sung Chan is an easy to like, if not exactly complex character, and the viewer quite happily supports him in his struggle. Perhaps even more importantly, Bong Joo makes for a great villain, not afraid to stoop to poisonings, beatings and other dastardly schemes as he tries to defeat his nemesis by any means necessary. Their rivalry is built up from the very first scene and it works well, driving the film and adding a fair amount of tension, distracting from the plot’s lack of originality. It also helps to spice up the competition somewhat, which otherwise seems rather random, stopping for days between events and with the judging being quite blatantly biased. The fight between the two also makes for a number of amusing scenes, and the film is quite funny throughout, in a fittingly light hearted rather than overtly comical fashion.
The film basically follows the sports film style structure, with the usual underdog theme and a variety of familiar subplots. Director Jeon does throw in a little mystery later on, though this seems to have been added in almost as an afterthought, as does the romantic element which is basically introduced at the start, then forgotten about for most of the running time, only to be tacked on again at the end. Still, although predictable the plot remains interesting, with enough eccentric twists and turns to give it a flavour of its own, including a bizarre quest to get charcoal from a death row prison inmate which results in a riot and a series of gratuitous and wholly unnecessary flashbacks.
Of course, the film is about far more than simply food, with cooking being treated as an important part of traditional Korean culture, and Jeon draws explicit links between recipes and national identity. The competition itself is rooted in history, involving the last royal chef of the Joseon era and the Japanese occupation, and this serves nicely to add a bit more gravity to the plot rather than simply being about seeing who is the better cook. Inevitably, cooking takes on an almost spiritual aspect, being a vital part of the protagonist’s personal journey, though Jeon thankfully steers clear of anything too pretentious or heavy handed. This does give the film a certain amount of heart and humanity, which lifts it above the usual clichés of the form.
Surprisingly, the film is visually very impressive, with lots of cooking and food preparation shown in great detail and loving close up. Needless to say, there are a great many exquisite looking dishes on display, which are guaranteed to guaranteed to set viewers’ mouths watering. Jeon includes a great many intricate, artfully composed shots and shows a great use of colour, really bringing the food to life. The film also features some excellent split screen work, and some tight, though not flashy editing, which keeps things moving along at a good pace and makes the contest scenes genuinely exciting. The dynamic soundtrack also helps, adding a certain liveliness to the proceedings and being subtly stirring in a way that further draws the viewer into the action.
As a result, “Le Grand Chef” is really quite charming and though not particularly ambitious it makes for entertaining viewing. Warm hearted and pleasant throughout, it offers up an engaging underdog story with a uniquely Korean flavour that should be enjoyed by all viewers.
Yun-su Jeon (director) / Yun-su Jeon (screenplay)
CAST: Kang-woo Kim … Sung-chan
Ha-na Lee … Jin-su
Won-hie Lim … Bong-Joo