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The popularity of food related Korean films continues with “The Naked Kitchen” from first time female director Hong Ji Young, who also worked on the recent patisserie-set “Antique”. The film boasts an all star cast in the form of “Princess Hours” heartthrob Ju Ji Hoon (also in “Antique”), Kim Tae Woo (recently in “Woman on the Beach”) and Shin Min Ah (who made an impression in “Go Go 70s” and who featured alongside Ju Ji Hoon in television drama “Devil”). Although the basic premise is a familiar one, revolving around the inevitable love triangle, the film is actually quite different, and far more mature than might have been expected, and as such it manages to transcend the limitations of the genre.
The film follows parasol shop owner and designer Mo Rae (Shin Min Ah), who is happily married to her childhood love Sang In (Kim Tae Woo). One day, her life is thrown into disarray after a chance encounter with a handsome young stranger called Doo Rae (Ju Ji Hoon), which she takes to have been a one time slip. She confesses, the incident to her husband, downplaying it both to him and to herself. However, she gets a surprise when Sang In quits his banking job to follow his dream of becoming a chef and opening a restaurant, bringing home with him a live-in teacher, who just happens to be none other than Doo Rae. With her husband blissfully unaware of Doo Rae’s identity, he encourages Mo Rae to get along with him, leading the poor woman to somewhat of a crisis as she tries to decide what her heart really wants.
The love triangle at the heart of “The Naked Kitchen” is all the more interesting for the fact that the indiscretion which drives the plot comes near the start of the film, clearly setting out the attraction and indeed tension between its characters. Although Sang In is incredibly slow on the uptake, this helps to keep things interesting, as it is obvious that matter will come to a head sooner or later. However, although Ju Ji Hoon and Kim Tae Woo get a lot of screen time, the film effectively revolves around Mo Rae, with director Hong clearly playing things from a female perspective. This makes from a refreshing change from the usual male wish fulfilment, and the film is about her awakening and coming to terms with her own emotions and desires more than about her making a simple choice between the two men. As a result, the film has far more depth than the vast majority of similarly themed efforts, with the relationships between its characters being all the more believable for their frequent awkwardness and problems. The film is romantic, though not in a trite manner, and is surprisingly affecting, thanks in no small part to its even handed conclusion, which again sees Hong refusing to take the easy, genre approved route.
Her direction is elegant and breezy throughout, though not at the expense of the material, and she eschews any of the unnatural cutesy touches with tend to plague such films. The proceedings benefit from a gentle injection of humour, though which thankfully stays clear of slapstick or anything crude. As such, when the film does become more serious during its final act, the shift is not a jarring one, and Hong is able to retain a sense of amiability without underplaying the turmoil. Indeed, the film feels unforced and natural throughout, with its deceptively simple premise hiding impressive emotional depths. The visuals are appealing, with the various dishes on show playing almost as much a part as the characters. Food actually plays a large and significant role, symbolising the interaction and relationships between the characters, and though this, the film is somewhat reminiscent of Ang Lee’s “Eat Drink Man Woman”. Hong throws in countless mouth watering close ups of food and its preparation, and the film is certainly not one to watch on an empty stomach.
As such, “The Naked Kitchen” manages to satisfy the eyes, the stomach and the heart, and stands as a very welcome alternative to the endless tide of “My Sassy Girl” clones which have come to dominate the Korean romance genre. Benefiting from a woman’s touch and three charismatic lead performances, the film is entertaining and moving, even for viewers not usually enamoured of the form.
Hong Ji-young (director) / Hong Ji-young, Lee Kyeong-ee (screenplay)
CAST: Sin Min-ah, Kim Tae-woo, Joo Ji-hoon, Jeon Hye-jin-II, Park Sang-hun, Jeong So-yeon