Friday, July 01, 2011

NYAFF ’11: The Recipe

Rosebud is a bowl of stew. Kim Jong-gu is no Charles Foster Kane though. He was a serial killer fugitive. His dying words were not of defiance or regret, but of the doenjang (bean paste) stew he was relishing when the cops finally collared him. Rediscovering his journalistic curiosity, a jaded television news producer (is there any other kind?) sets out to discover if the stew really is that good in Lee Seon-goon’s The Recipe (unrepresentative trailer here), which screens during the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival.

The stew in question was the specialty of a rustic mountain lodge. Evidently, its savory flavor held Kim in thrall as the law encircled him. Unfortunately, recreating the stew in all its glory will be a bit tricky. The enigmatic cook Jang Hye-jin has disappeared (well after Kim’s capture), leading hack newsman Choi Yu-jin to fear the worst.

Essentially, Recipe is the foodie version of Eddie and the Cruisers, with a Silence of the Lambs prologue. Yet, despite the serial killer catalyst, Recipe is an unapologetically sentimental tear-jerker in the tradition of Il Mare, the Korean weeper remade by Hollywood as The Lake House with a bogus happy ending. As Kim tracks down the exquisitely pure beans, salt, yeast, and water Jang patiently collected, he pieces together her backstory. There was indeed a tragic romance, with the strong but silent vintner the villagers affectionately called the “Mountain Goblin.”

In keeping with Recipe’s elegiac romanticism, Lee Seon-gong (a.k.a. Anna Lee) maintains a mysterious and ever so slightly mystical atmosphere throughout, letting the puzzle pieces elegantly fall into place. As a culinary procedural, it is rather tightly constructed, but the star-crossed love is the real meat of its stew.

As Jang and “the Goblin” respectively, the lovely Lee Yo-won and scruffy Dong Wook-lee nicely project a contradictory blend of earthiness and ethereal allure. Unfortunately, Ryoo Seung-ryong’s Choi indulgences in a few too many rubber-faced reactions shots that clash with the film’s overall dreamy vibe. Frankly, we could use more shots of his back, like William Alland in Citizen Kane.

Regardless, Lee Seon-goon has a strong command of the material, avoiding cheap sentimentality in favor of the hard earned kind. Na Hee-suk’s gauzy cinematography also perfectly serves the film’s swooning spirit and soft fantastical elements. Even the hopelessly cynical should get a tad choked up at the end. Lee’s adroit genre hopscotching also makes Recipe a natural fit for NYAFF, where it screens this coming Tuesday (7/5) and the following Saturday (7/9) at the Walter Reade Theater.