Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 (2007)
Every time we read or watch something, there’s an inevitable filtering process involved as we decide whether this material is interesting enough to continue reading or watching. In part, this judgement is a reflection of the extent to which the content matches our own prejudices and expectations. We’re more likely to be interested and so continue to consume the material if the content seems credible to us, i.e. reflects how we believe the world works. Indeed, the more familiar the content, the less likely we are consciously to notice the way in which it’s presented. But when we look at content sourced from outside our culture, a slightly different process takes place. In this case, we have a Korean film and we’re playing a kind of comparative game, inferring their beliefs and cultural shibboleths. We do this by noting all the ways in which the people behave differently to our expectations and then guessing why that might happen.
At a superficial level Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 (2007) is a film about a cooking competition. Naturally our good-looking hero, Sung-Chan (Kim Kang-Woo) with natural flair is destined to win. Bong-Joo (Lim Won-Hee), the dark, surly one who cheats, will lose. More importantly, the hero has sex appeal and so will likely end up in a relationship with Jin-Soo (Lee Ha-Na) — she’s the equally good-looking and, by Korean standards, the feisty young journalist covering the competition. Except, unless I’m completely misjudging the plot, the film is really an intensely nationalistic paen about what it means to be Korean and how that fits into a modern world in which Japan is to be considered an ally, if not a friendly state.
To understand this, we need to go back in time. Japan declared Korea a protectorate in 1905 and formally annexed it in 1910, displacing Emperor Gojong and appointing a Japanese Governor General. This film acknowledges many Koreans were deeply resentful and refused all co-operation with the Japanese. This included the Royal Chef who refused to cook for the Japanese. At this time, he had two apprentices, one of whom became a collaborator, routinely cooking for the Governor General. The Royal Chef only cooked once more. He made some soup for the deposed Emperor. When the Emperor drank it, he cried. When the Governor General heard of this, he asked for the same soup. Rather than make it, the Royal Chef cut off his hand. Later, with the help of his loyal apprentice, the Royal Chef committed suicide. This left the collaborator apprentice as the top chef in the palace, now serving the Japanese. As a mark of respect, the Governor General took the knife the Royal Chef had used and preserved it. We now move into modern times.
The grandson of the Governor General comes to Korea with the knife and proposes a national competition to find the chef best representing the traditions of the Royal Kitchens in a modern Korea. The knife shall be the prize. Sung-Chan is the grandson of the apprentice loyal to the Royal Chef and Bong-Joo is the grandson of the collaborator. Both are highly talented but Sung-Chan is better. The detail of the competition is irrelevant as are the emotionally quite powerful subplots involving the charcoal and the fate of the two bulls. The point of the film is not the cooking, although that’s reasonably interesting to watch, it’s the how and the why our hero wins despite the flagrant cheating and attempted bribery of the judges. As an aside, Bong-Joo’s treatment of his bull also weighs against him.
This is the most ironic Korean film I’ve seen. It alleges that, for all Korea was abused during the occupation, it adopted Japanese/Korean fusion cooking as the height of chic. Bong-Joo carries on the traditions established by his grandfather and has superstar status in “high-end” restaurant circles. When he puts dishes together for judging, he’s actually pandering to the taste buds of the Korean expert judges and the Japanese visitor. He expects to win because he believes contemporary Korean food culture is partly Japanese. Of course, the competition boils down to a head-to-head and then to a single dish. The Japanese visitor asks for a bowl of soup, thereby replicating history. Bong-Joo uses the secret recipe his grandfather handed down. Sung-Chan produces something simple, something the peasants might have eaten in 1910. The Korean experts refuse to even taste Sung-Chan’s down-market fare, believing this to be an insult to their sensibilities as the guardians of what it means to be Korean. It takes the outsider to tell the truth.
He dismisses the soup made by Bong-Joo as being what his mother used to make at home. He did not come to Korea in search of Japanese food. For him, the natural ingredients selected by Sung-Chan directly capture the taste and spirit of Korea. If a country is to be true to itself, it must go back to its roots and find cultural sustenance in its history and traditions. At a grass-root level of popular taste, ordinary people know what they like and vote with their feet. The pretentiousness in more elitist surroundings is actually dangerous because it creates an us and them. We’re better than them because of what we like to eat. That may be acceptable when the food is inherently Korean at all levels. But it’s nationally divisive if the elite choose to differentiate themselves by preferring to be Japanese in their tastes.
I found Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 a fascinating film, offering a less common insight into core Korean values and how this influences nationalism as applied to Japan. There are interesting subplots and some gentle humour as well. It’s worth tracking down as a thoughtful contribution to the debate about what it means to be Korean. Screenwriter and director Jeon Yun-Su is to be congratulated.