“Le Grand Chef: Kimchi Battle” is the follow up to 2007’s culinary blockbuster, again based on the manhwa comics by Hur Young Man. With the first film having been a neatly self contained affair, the sequel features an all new cast of chefs and characters, headlined by competing siblings played by popular actress Kim Jung Eun (recently in “Forever the Moment”) and actor Jin Gu, following up his award winning performance in Bong Joon Ho’s superb “Mother”. This time around Baek Dong Hun takes over from director Jeon Yoon Soo, teaming with the original’s co-writer Shin Dong Ik.
Kim Jung Eun plays Jang Eun, a female chef from humble beginnings who has spent years working hard for international recognition by creating fusion dishes. She returns home from Japan when a nation kimchi contest is announced, planning to close down her family’s old restaurant as a way of putting to rest some unpleasant memories. Coming up against her is her adopted younger brother Sung Chan (Jin Gu), a talented cook who now makes a living selling vegetables and supporting their parents. The two are soon locked in battle, each trying their own variations on their mother’s kimchi recipes.
Although its plot and the whole cooking competition premise is fairly familiar, “Le Grand Chef: Kimchi Battle” does quietly defy expectations in a number of ways. The sibling rivalry between Jang Eun and Sung Chan which drives the film makes for interesting dynamic, much more so than if Baek and Shin had aimed for the usual romantic frissons. Ultimately, the film belongs to Jang Eun, the more engaging of the two characters, with an impressive performance from Kim Jung Eun. Whilst her role in the film is almost that of a villainess, being initially cold, and with her plan to close down the restaurant despite her mother’s ill health, she has her reasons, and is a hard working, dedicated woman who it is hard not to admire for her triumphs over adversity. Her character is well written, and the film is all the better for taking its time in explaining her motivations and complexities. Though a bit more one note, Sung Chan is likeable enough, and their changing relationship and the family secrets which are gradually revealed, keep the film moving along nicely.
Another pleasant surprise comes in the way in which the film is warm and humanistic rather than simply melodramatic. Whilst it certainly has the requisite sentimental streak, this is well won through its investment in character, and as a result it is moving in a genuine and not mawkish fashion, never going for the heartstrings too cheaply. The film is intermittently funny and serious, though never goes so far in one direction to undermine the other, making for enjoyable, well meaning fun. Thematically, it deals with food as a means of bringing families together, in particular representing the feelings of a mother towards her children, and this is perhaps the area of the film which most verges on cliché, though not in too offensive or saccharine a manner. Nationalism also raises its head, with kimchi being touted as a symbol of national culture, and viewers are guaranteed to learn more about the dish and its many different varieties.
Baek’s direction is low key and naturalistic for the most part, though he does turn on the style during the cooking competition scenes, working in some comic book touches, split screen work and flashy editing. These visual flourishes are not overused, and do help to inject a little excitement and tension, with it not being clear which of the two chefs is likely to emerge victorious. Food preparation and presentation plays a large role, and Baek includes countless immaculate and colourful shots which will make viewers’ mouths water, even if they don’t like or have never tried kimchi.
“Le Grand Chef: Kimchi Battle” is certainly a very warm film, though at the same time is mature and heartfelt. Benefitting from its attention to detail and effort in its characters, and very much anchored by a fine turn from Kim Jung Eun, it makes for enjoyable, affecting viewing, without relying upon too many of the standard genre cheap shots.
Baek Dong-hoon (director) / Baek Dong-hoon (screenplay)
CAST: Kim Jeong-eun, Jin Goo, Wang Ji-hye, Choi Jong-won, Lee Bo-hee, Lee Byeong-joon