A romantic comedy about food should evoke some hunger pangs, as well as some mouthwatering oohs and aahs for the sheer visuals of food that you'll probably swear you can smell and taste, if done right. However, the first reactions from Le Grand Chef is "eeeeeeeeeeeee" followed by plenty of reeling from the graphic nature of fresh sashimi preparation. The opening scene is the preparation of fresh golden blowfish, where you'll see the fish still gasping in its last stages of life, snuffed through a deft decapitation of its head, followed by the fins, before skinning it in one fall swoop, disembowelment and the slicing of its meat so thinly that it's translucent.
Based on a popular comic book series, Le Grand Chef perched on the #1 spot in Korea for three weeks, touching very familiar territory in the likes of films shown a few months back such as No Reservations and Ratatouille. We're soon introduced to two rival chefs, Sung-chan (Kim Kang-woo) and Bong-joo (Lim Won-hie), where they are to present to a judging panel to wrestle control over a famed restaurant. Needless to say, Sung-chan fails miserably through obvious foul play, and quits the scene.
Becoming a well known produce farmer with fans made from middle aged housewives, Sung-chan is soon persuaded to return to the scene by VJ Jin-su (Lee Ha-na) through a cooking competition, where the prize is a rusty blade belonging to the Royal Chef, an artifact with so much rich history, it just had to tie into the lives of Sung-chan and Bong-joo and their ancestors. So it's game on everybody!
With good food photographed so beautifully, there's nothing not to like about the movie, despite its very familiar storyline, The plot may be recycled from various cookery/food movies, even like Stephen Chow's God of Cookery, but here, it goes to show that the delivery plays a huge part. While it is very obvious to rattle on and on about the competition proceedings, director Jeon Yun-su mixes things up and borrows loads from Japanese movies where food is concerned (Udon, anyone?) and added ingredients from melodrama to bloat the plot.
Fortunately, they don't dilute the movie, but provided a good variety of subplots on the side, ranging from supporting side characters such as a famed charcoal maker, to comedy involving the quest to cook the perfect Ramen. Running through the narrative is plenty of flashbacks into the ancestry of the rival chefs, which had a simple mystery on the sins of their ancestors, adding some form of depth into the hatred these men have toward each other. For once, I thought the flashbacks were as effective as they were entertaining.
While the subplots serve to entertain, the cookery competition serves up a feast for the eyes, albeit it took a backseat in the second half of the story after a flurry of first half activity, so much so that split screens in comic book style had to be employed to squeeze as much as possible onscreen at the same time. And the presentation was kept fresh with different styles employed so that it's not the same after each round of competition, keeping in line with the necessity of having things fresh, akin to food.
Le Grand Chef is a delightful film to sit through, and probably fired the first salvo for 2008 as a contender to be amongst the top of my list this year. It's not just or always about food, but the philosophy, ingredients and plenty of heart, nevermind the cliche that come along with it, especially with the some similarities to Pixar's last offering, from plot to characters. One thing's for sure, food critics aren't really a likeable bunch from the way they are portrayed in movies, ha!