'Le Grand Chef' offers visual feast with colorful food contest
By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: October 23, 2007
"Le Grand Chef," directed by Jun Yoon-soo, is based on an extremely popular comic series of the same title. This adaptation is perhaps as razor-sharp as a knife wielded by the seasoned cooks featured in the film.
The apparent advantage of making this film was the original comics' popularity, which should surely stimulate the visual appetite of readers who have avidly consumed the serialized feast of Korean food.
Its disadvantage is that director Jun is under pressure to surpass -- or at least meet -- the higher expectations of those who have already tasted the colorful descriptions of savory food in Huh Young-man's celebrated comic series.
Unlike the comics, where a sprawling number of episodes are presented buffet style, "Le Grand Chef" focuses on the confrontation between two central characters, Seong-chan (Kim Kang-woo) and Bong-ju (Lim Won-hee). The showdown is held at a national cooking contest, and much of the film's visual appeal is drawn from the delicate presentation of food and the sparkling display of cooking skills by the contestants.
But there is a crucial background story. Five years ago, Seong-chan and his longtime rival Bong-ju were working together at a famous Korean restaurant called Unamjeong. The two fought a lethal cooking battle -- literally. For some unknown reason, those who ate Seong-chan's swellfish were poisoned, and Bong-ju won the competition. Deeply depressed, Seong-chan left the restaurant and gave up cooking.
Now, back to the present where the two men run into each other again. After some wrangling and inner conflict, Seong-chan is finally persuaded to participate in a ferocious competition of cooks at a national championship, thanks in large part to a pretty video journalist called Jin-su (Lee Ha-na), who is covering the food contest and in the process helps uncover a less-than-savory mystery hidden behind the event.
At a recent press preview, director Jun said he wanted to depart from other cooking-oriented films. "Most films dealing with this subject focus on the beauty of cooking and food, but we wanted to highlight the close relations between cooks and food materials," he said.
One of the most emotionally-charged scenes in the film involves the slaughtering of a cow, when Seong-chan becomes extremely anguished and distressed over the inhumane aspect of cooking. While most people do not think about where their meat has come from, behind any meat, however prettily decorated, is a slaughtering. Cooks must accept that cows and other live animals are part of the cooking process, whether they want it or not.
Kim Kang-woo, who plays Seong-chan, said he knew nothing about the slaughtering process. To prepare for the crucial shooting, he visited a slaughterhouse, where he suffered a big shock.
"When we were actually shooting the slaughterhouse scene, Seong-sun (the name of the cow under the care of Seong-chan in the film) was under extreme pressure and it turned out that it lost about 30 kilograms in a day because it got terrified at the possibility that it might be slaughtered right there," Kim said.
But except for the teary scene, the film revolves around a wide range of delicacies expertly prepared by professional cooks intent on staying ahead in the competition, while the actors help amplify the dramatic elements in the otherwise too-flat plot.
For all the bigger and grander visual effects, the big-screen adaptation seems unlikely to surpass the original comic series, especially in the small yet moving details that make up a human drama.
But then again, Huh Young-man, creator of the original cartoon series, seems to have feasted on the silver-screen adaptation. Director Jun said, "After Huh watched our movie, he just put his thumbs up, and I was really happy to see that."
"Le Grand Chef," or "Sikgaek" in Korean, is scheduled to be released on Nov. 1.