Monday, July 4, 2011

New York Asian Film Festival 2011 Review: Lee Seo-goon's "The Recipe"

The Recipe (Doenjang). 2010. Directed by Lee Seo-goon. Written by Jang Jin and Lee Seo-goon. Produced by Jang Jin. Cinematography by Na Hee-seok. Edited by Kim Sang-bum. Music by Han Jae-gweon. Production design by Jang Seok-jin. Costume design by Kim Heui-ju. Sound by Choi Tae-yeong. Visual effects by Park Eui-dong.

Cast: Ryoo Seung-ryong (Choi Yu-jin), Lee Yo-won (Jang Hye-jin), Lee Dong-wook (Kim Hyun-soo), Cho Seong-ha (Chairman Park), Ryoo Seung-mok (Kim Jong-gu).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

A mystical and magical concoction, much like the doenjang jjigae (soybean paste stew) dish that it revolves around, Lee Seo-goon’s second feature The Recipe hinges on a brilliant bit of narrative misdirection.  Choi Yu-jin (Ryoo Seung-ryong), the producer/host of a sensationalistic TV expose program, is tipped by a prospective intern to an odd last statement given by Kim Jong-gu (Ryoo Seung-mok), a fearsome serial killer, on the day of his execution.  Jong-gu longingly utters the word “Doenjang.” (This is also the film’s Korean title.)  He goes on to express his wish for another bowl of the stew.  As we’ve been conditioned to do by so many other films, we expect to be taken into the convoluted past and secrets of this criminal, and indeed, this is the initial path Yu-jin pursues in his investigation.  However, to Yu-jin’s and our great surprise, Jong-gu quickly disappears as a significant character and instead the focus shifts to what would in any other film would be a peripheral figure: the woman who made the dish that mesmerized the criminal, allowing this fugitive to be taken in by the police and put to death.  This cook is one Jang Hye-jin (Lee Yo-won), and soon the story shifts to Yu-jin’s investigation of her life, and more specifically, the love affair that led to her own death in a car accident.  Along the way, Yu-jin learns the intricacies of doenjang making and is told about the metaphysical qualities of Hye-jin’s special brand, which mysteriously attracts butterflies, resurrects deadened taste buds, contains scientifically impossible 100% pure salt, and which proves to be a physical manifestation of her equally pure love for Kim Hyun-soo (Lee Dong-wook).  Yu-jin searches for this man, to get to the bottom of the enigma that is Hye-jin’s magical stew.

Free-wheeling mixing and matching of genres is a very much a hallmark of Korean cinema, and The Recipe takes this to a new level.  Lee’s film contains many different narrative modes and methods within it: the crime drama, the road movie, the romance, the melodrama, and the ghost story, with some off-kilter comic elements, and even an animated sequence, stirred into the mix.  On paper, this would seem like an impossibly unstable object; however, Lee’s sure and steady directorial hand, and the gorgeous and dreamy imagery she lends to her magical-realist tale, prevents it all from sinking into incoherence.  Lee Seo-goon, also known as Anna Lee, was the screenwriter (at 19!) of Park Chul-soo’s bizarre and satirical 301/302 (1995), which also had a very strong food-based theme.  But where that film depicts psychological imbalance and existential angst, The Recipe has a far gentler and more lyrical tone.  The film’s titular dish takes on an allegorical import that goes beyond mere food; its connection to nature and the land, and its representation of tradition and historical memory expands its meaning into a metaphor for the nation itself.  Hyun-soo’s status as a dual Korean/Japanese citizen, and the hinted-at colonial legacy which serves to drive the lovers apart, serves to make that metaphor explicit.

The Recipe, among its many other virtues, is a foodie film extraordinaire; it deserves to stand next to films such as Tampopo (1985), Babette’s Feast (1987), and Like Water for Chocolate (1992) as another classic of this genre.  Produced and co-written by writer-director Jang Jin (Guns and Talks, Good Morning President), Lee’s second film arrives 12 years after her debut feature Rub Love (1998).  Let’s hope this incredibly talented filmmaker doesn’t take nearly that long to make her next one.

The Recipe screens at the Walter Reade Theater on July 5 at 3:45pm and July 9 at 7pm.  For tickets, visit the New York Asian Film Festival and The Film Society of Lincoln Center websites.

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