NYAFF 2011: THE RECIPE Review

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
The Recipe's Korean title, 'doenjang' refers to 'fermented soybean paste' which is the base of almost all Korean cooking- it is in soups, stews, marinades, condiments, side dishes... the list is endless. With such an ever-present, everyday ingredient as the subject, I thought the film would be a tongue-in-cheek, Tampopo style comedy. Director Lee Seo-goon rather takes a tear-jerking, populist approach, a la Le Grande Chef, and the result is lukewarm at best.  

It starts out quite promisingly- a death row inmate's last wish  to taste the same doenjang jigae (soybean stew) in a small mountain restaurant where he was caught, triggers a TV producer Choi (Ryu Seung-ryong) on a wild goose chase. The police report and eye witnesses support that it was the aroma of the stew that stopped the violent criminal in his tracks.

With the help of his always hungry police friend and a lab technician, Choi searches for the story behind that mysterious soybean paste. The story cuts back and forth between Choi's investigation and Hye-jin (Lee Yo-won), the young woman carrying a small crock pot.

Growing up surrounded by meju (square blocks of fermenting soybean) hanging from the ceiling, Hye-jin has the talent for finding the right ingredient for making the best doenjang. Orphaned early on, Hye-jin travels countryside to find the right elements for her magical paste. In a southern rural village, she meets a handsome plum wine maker and falls in love.

As a Korean food aficionado, I expected to see some mouth watering Korean food in display in The Recipe. Unfortunately, the film turns out to be less about food and more to do with its gooey melodrama that involves an unrealized lovers' pledge, a fateful car accident, tears, butterflies and a goblin.

The most interesting part of the film is the process of making doenjang. Lee tries to elevate the art of doenjang making as that of wine making. A lot of elements play the roles: the location, soil, soybeans, water, salt, yeast, pollen, clay (for the large crock pots that would house the fermenting ingredients) and of course that special individual touch. Lee shows the process faithfully, if not a little too cutesy, sterile way.

Still looking for that one good film that would satisfy my desire to see delicious Korean food parading in front of me, I walked away from The Recipe with my mouth completely dry.

The Recipe will be screening as part of the 10th annual New York Asian Film Festival on Tuesday, July 5th and Saturday, July 9th. You can find out more information at the NYAFF website.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions of the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com


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