They say music soothes the savage beast, but in Lee Seo-goon’s The Recipe, it’s food that does the trick. More specifically, it’s a big bowl of doenjang jjigae, a Korean hot pot dish with a soybean paste (a la miso) base, that figuratively brings a serial killer to his knees, cures a man of his anosmia, prevents dead bodies from decomposing, attracts butterflies in droves, and performs other minor miracles. The chef of this magic dish is Hye-jin (Lee Yo-won), a young woman in a star-crossed relationship with a local winemaker (Lee Dong-wook) whom the local townsfolk affectionately call Goblin. Although the two are in love, Goblin is stuck in an arranged marriage that his family has set up for him, thus the two’s time with each other is fleeting with Goblin’s inevitable fate hanging above them. Some of their time spent together focuses on Hye-Jin’s making her own doenjang, a seemingly simple craft (doenjang is essentially just preserved soybeans) but one whose quality of final product is determined by the smallest of details. Ultimately, the consummation of their time together becomes the pot of the miraculous doenjang jjigae.
Half of the film is their love story, but the other half is the unraveling of said story by a TV reporter, Choi (Ryoo Seung-ryong), who starts following the serial killer story, but then gets wrapped up in discovering the mystery of the wonder stew. His quest is aided by some obtuse clues, a dim-witted police officer who caves into any request at the promise of food, and some very convenient story contrivances which eventually lead him to Hye-jin and Goblin’s story. At one point, Choi reaches a dead end when, lo and behold, a new character is introduced to the story who essentially unravels the entire story. That, and a denouement that also basically unravels the subtleties of the story, is the film’s main detractors. The latter, in particular, robs the story of its emotional impact. While some may argue that the somewhat constituents of the story as well as the nonstandard way in which it’s told may necessitate a little hand holding, I couldn’t help but feel a little insulted that I was somehow not able to piece the story together myself.
What does work for the film is its visuals. For Asian film fans in general, it’s become quite the joke to inquire about the visual quality of any post-2000 Korean film. To such inquiries, the answer is almost always, “It’s a Korean film,” meaning, yes, it looks great. Unlike any other Asian country, Japan with its rich cinematic history included, South Korea has been able to develop a consistent level of visual quality that is unmatched, even by Hollywood. And it’s not only just in action-revenge tales and art-house films that seemingly permeate (from a Western perspective) Korean film, but even The Recipe, essentially a melodrama, receives the superlative visual treatment. The film not only just looks good, in fact, but Lee employs several visual styles that work well with each other, from a whimsical magical-realism similar to that which Tetsuya Nakashima used in his Memories of Matsuko (2006) to an earthy, more organic look during Hye-jin and Goblin’s segment. An animated sequence is even included which indicates that Lee not only has a flair for working in popular mediums, but also in a way that doesn’t seem forced or obtrusive. Overall, a similar sentiment could be expressed about Lee’s handling of the entire film. Though you could certainly argue that the film seems more ambitious than its final product, that The Recipe is Lee’s second feature film, and her first in over a decade, means that she might be a director to watch provided it doesn’t take another decade for her to get the opportunity to make another film.
The Recipe is a pleasant and relatively short watch (something that can’t be said about other films from Korea). More importantly, it is a reminder that food, like life, is better with a little love.