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Le Grand Chef
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by Jay Seaver

"Tasty, if not always filling."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: At a festival like Fantasia, it's important to seek out movies like "Le Grand Chef" even if they don't turn out to be among the best in the festival - a steady diet of zombies, serial killers, ghosts and the like can leave a person feeling incredibly burned out by the time it's over. A mostly light-hearted movie about rival cooks can be just what one needs to cleanse the palate, if you'll excuse the metaphor.

Five years ago, Sung-chan (Kim Kang-woo) was poised to ascend to the top of the cooking world, but a terrible and nearly fatal blowfish incident led to Oh Bong-joo (Lim Won-hie) being selected as the head chef at Korea's most prestigious restaurant and culinary school instead. Now, Sung-chan is happily working as a farmer and greengrocer, looking after his increasingly senile grandfather, when an old friend shows up. The knife of the last Master Chef to Korea's last king has been found in Japan, and a nationwide contest has been announced to find which chef deserves to be its new owner. The man wants Sung-chan to enter, but he has no interest in doing so, even if he has left pretty VJ Kim Jin-su (Lee Ha-na) around to pester him until he does. He's resolute about not wanting to be in that sort of high-pressure environment again - at least, until Bong-joo shows up to offer him the position as the head of his kitchen if he stays out.

There's a lot to like about Le Grand Chef. Fans of the food movie will enjoy watching Sung-chan and Jin-su prepare a variety of Korean dishes far more appetizing than what they may remember from Oldboy. Director Jeon Yun-su keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, and he and screenwriter Shin Dong-ik embrace the episodic nature of the original comics (occasionally even using the sort of split screens Ang Lee used for Hulk) without making the resulting film seem choppy or overstuffed. There's a fun cast of characters, and even the ones that could have been one-note villains or clowns are something more interesting.

That said, the movie has the potential to hit some big-time cultural barriers if it ever gets any sort of release in North America. It plays heavily on the antagonistic history between Korea and Japan (though to its credit does have noble and honorable Japanese characters prominently featured), and sometimes seems to play a little fast and loose with the history - Sung-chan's and Bong-joo's grandfathers would have to be nearly a hundred years old if I didn't misinterpret the timeline. Some of the other subplots brought up by the various rounds of the competition were kind of hard sells, as well: Even with the rhapsodic explanations the competition host gives, and how competititve and perfectionist top chefs can be, I admit to being a little skeptical at how cutthroat the chefs got over obtaining quality charcoal. And the sequence after that... I know non-vegetarians can be hypocritical, but I don't if this section ever manages to overcome the sentiments that it so bluntly works against.

For all the missteps the story seems to take at times, it does have a very nice cast. Kim Kang-woo is a charming leading man, who would make a great lead in something more like a straight romantic comedy, and we buy him as both an average guy and a master chef. Lee Ha-na is something we don't see often enough: She's not only the film's main female character, she's also generally the funniest person on screen; she and Kim are just plain enjoyable to watch together. Lim Won-hie gives the kind of performance that can easily be undervalued; Bong-joo is the villain of the piece, but he doesn't seem comfortable there. He does underhanded things, but Lim sells us on the sort of pressure Bong-joo is under that he feels he must resort to them, so that we're disappointed when his better nature doesn't win out.

"Le Grand Chef" is a pretty good movie, one that hit the spot amid a tide of films that can sort of blend together. Even if it doesn't go on the list as one of my favorites, it's a very nice diversion.

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originally posted: 07/07/08 01:53:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jeon Yun-su

Written by
  Shin Dong-ik

  Kim Kang-woo
  Lee Ha-na
  Lim Won-hie

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