March 23, 2008

Movie Review - Le Grand Chef


Jewel in the Palace, or Dae Jang Geum, introduced Korean cuisine to the world. Interest in Korean cuisine has continued to fascinate people worldwide as we chomp on more kimchi and bibimbhap. This must have played on the minds of the makers of the movie - Le Grand Chef.

Adapted from the Korean comic, or manwha, Le Grand Chef traces the life of a young man who tries to exorcise the ghosts of his past as he strives to be the best chef in Korea. This movie is helmed by Kim Kang Woo (male lead) and Lee Ha Na, (female lead).

Set in contemporary times, the story revolves around a culinary competition which awards the winner with the knife that was last used by the last imperial chef from the Chosun Dynasty, just before Korea was colonised by Japan. This is considered as the highest accolade for the chef as it implicitly means that he's the 'guardian' of traditional Korean cuisine. More interestingly, the knife was used by the imperial to hack off his own hand so that he need not prepare a meal for the Japanese colonisers. Talk about patriotism!

Kim plays the character of Sung-chan, a highly talented apprentice in a famous cooking school/restaurant. As with all talented folks, Sung evokes jealousy among his lesser endowed apprentices in the school. It doesn't that that the direct descendent of the school, by the name of Bong-joo, who expects to be handed the reins of the place, is also in the same cohort. This is not a good situation since the school awards the most talented apprentice to inherit the restaurant.

'Face-off' Korean style

A competition was held to choose the inheritor. Being the best in their cohort, Sung and Bong were selected to compete for the post. The dish they had to prepare was the golden blowfish (or puffer fish for those who are familiar with Japanese cuisine).

As a side-note, blowfish are known for their lethal venom and it is a known fact that people die each year, really, when consuming blowfish that are not prepared properly.

Bong knows that he's soundly beaten in both the departments of skill and talent. So to even out the odds, he just dipped his hands into the discarded parts of the blowfish and contaminated Sung's dish. There's no prize for guessing what happened. The judges tasted the dish and were all poisoned, with foaming mouths etc.

With his reputation in tatters, Sung was expelled from the school. Having lost all his confidence, he retreated to a rural city and became a vegetable grocer. It's right about now that Lee Ha Na makes her entrance as Jin-su, a highly inquisitive reporter. In the movie, Jin helps Sung slowly regain his confidence and passion for the culinary profession. Without a doubt, Jin is also Sung's love interest in the movie, although I found this subplot of the movie rather undeveloped, which is an understatement.

The ever sweet looking Lee Ha Na

The movie eventually evolved around the various rounds of competition as Sung and Bong slugged it out in the kitchen to be the No.1 Chef in Korea. I have to admit that the scenes where food was prepared was pretty interesting, since I love to cook myself. However, despite it being a movie, Le Grand Chef failed to capture the 'essence' of the Korean culinary art the way Jewel in the Palace did.

The plot in itself is highly unimaginative and rather linear. There was little or no chemistry between Sung and Jin since the amount of time dedicated to their blossoming romance is almost nil. There were several interesting subplots involving Sung's friends and a charcoal maker. But these served little to beef up a movie which I thought was essentially a vehicle to showcase the cinematography skills of the director as well as that of the relatively good-looking cast. There was even the cliche attempt at the plot of how The Girl met Cha Tae Hyun's character in My Sassy Girl.

In my opinion, Le Grand Chef was one of the most disappointing Korean movie I had seen thus far. It's only saving grace was that I watched it free while flying back to Singapore from London. This movie is strictly for fans of the actors, or all things Korean.

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