Review: A Salaryman Worth His Weight in Gold

This review originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly

“Bold,” “brash,” “funny,” and “playing for keeps” – those are descriptions that can be applied in equal measure to not one but nearly each member of the cast of the raucous comedy-drama, “History of a Salaryman,” from SBS. One might well add “brave” and “devious” too.

Far from the traditional makjang dramas of hidden births and family secrets or stories of puppy love, “Salaryman” is a colorful re-imagining of the historical tale of the events leading up to the creation of the Han Dynasty in China, known as the Chu-Han Contention (206-202 BC). Cleverly weaving parallels to characters past and present and mapping out the ebb and flow of battle successes and failures, history has rarely been so amusing.

An Atypical Hero

The unlikely lead (or at least that is how he seems) and the titular salaryman is Yoo Bang, the Liu Bang of centuries past. He is played with an appealing zest by the youthful Beom-soo Lee. (And “youthful” is a particularly appropriate adjective in this case, as the story develops.) Yoo Bang not only is saddled with an unfortunate name (when not reading his name in it’s original Chinese characters it can refer to breasts), but he’s from a decidedly working class background.

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At the start of the story, Yoo Bang is unsuccessfully trying to fulfill his (now deceased) father’s most devout wish; that his son would go to college, get a job at a proper company, and wear business shoes every day – not work some menial job as he’d done. Yoo Bang has gone to college, but it’s some no-name, low prestige school and now he’s finding his task nearly impossible. He’s filling in some paperwork to participate in a medical study for some much-needed cash when he spots a fashionable, attractive, and graceful-looking young woman in a café opposite. He daydreams about how sweet and lovely her voice must be.

Fabulous (Fabulously Foul-mouthed)

Were he to be in the position of the wait-staff in the café he’d be in for a rude awakening for this is, in fact, the fantastically spoiled and foul-mouthed granddaughter of the Chu Han conglomerate, Baek Yeo-chi. With flaming red hair and a fiery tongue to match, Yeo-chi dialogue is 50% expletives-deleted as she chews out one person after another. In a radical departure from many of her other roles, Ryu-won Jung sets out brilliantly as the unforgettable heiress.

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If there is a contention, there must be an antagonist, and in “Salaryman” there are, in fact, several contenders for the role of chief villain. The most prominent of these (and not just because he dwarfs Beom-soo Lee by about six inches), is the dashing, American-educated marketing wunderkind and evil genius strategist, Cho Hang-woo. Gyu-woon Jung, who normally plays more conventional athletic and handsome leading men type roles, jumps in feet first to play the unscrupulous Hang-woo – Liu Bang’s ancient rival, Xiang Yu.

Schemes Galore

However, Hang-woo is not the only “Big Bad” facing Yoo Bang in this drama; he will also face off against Mo Ga-bi (played by Suh-hyung Kim), the duplicitous secretary to the chairman of Chu Han Group, and her erstwhile suitor and Chu Han Group vice-president, Park Bum-jang (Ki-young Lee).

The story begins with a pivotal moment; Yoo Bang enters a mansion on the proverbial dark and stormy night only to discover that the person he’s come to see has been murdered and it looks like a frame-up. The dead man was Yeo-chi’s uncle and co-heir to the family fortune and now Yoo Bang has been set up to take the fall; he’s going to have to make a run for it, only he won’t be doing so alone. He finds someone else in the house, someone else who’s made that shocking discovery, and that person is equally vulnerable to being framed. It’s Yeo-chi, and an unusual alliance is forged.

The story takes a step back to explore more closely how these two came to this unlikely meeting, tracing back to that medical experiment application being completed by Yoo Bang. It is a human trial of a secret new drug that has been developed by the Chu Han Group – a longevity pill! The rival firm must have it – at all costs! And the plan to obtain it is the brainchild of Hang-woo. There is no other alternative; he too will enter the test as a participant and steal it. Little does Hang-woo know that all the MBAs and fine training in the world will not prepare him for the likes of Yoo Bang. Nor is he prepared to meet a woman who seems oblivious to his charms. This is the final member of the main quartet – a key worker on the drug project, Cha Woo-hee (delightfully played by Soo-hyun Hong).

The attempt at corporate espionage is a total failure, as Yoo Bang manages to (innocently?) hilariously thwart Hang-woo at every turn. Those big, obviously “spy issue” glasses that Hang-woo is sporting, tricked out with microphone and mini-camera? Yoo Bang accuses him of pulling a fast one, giving Hang-woo a near heart attack. “Those are knock-offs, aren’t they?” chortles Yoo Bang. Not all is sunshine for Chu Han Group though; the drug does have some side effects. Yoo Bang is rendered impervious to pain, another test subject becomes ravenous, and Hang-woo develops a nervous twitch! Hang-woo plans to make use of this though, and sets out to create a new plan to achieve his mission. And his reasons go beyond financial ones; he harbors a grudge against Chu Han Group, it seems.

Wheelings and Dealings

Hang-woo’s plan involves getting a man in on the inside and Yoo Bang seems like the perfect dim-witted patsy for the job. Little does he know how this failure to understand Yoo Bang’s character will cost him! He sets him up to succeed at his entrance exam to Chu Han Group and surprisingly, Yoo Bang makes the grade. Given a position in Marketing, he is soon vulnerable to the political maneuverings taking place at the company and given an express assignment. He is to take charge of fellow new recruit, the phenomenally reluctant and resentful heiress-in-training, Baek Yeo-chi. Either he makes sure she’s present and doing her best or his job is on the line! Needless to say, she finds his predicament of little concern to her. She resents her grandfather, Chairman Jin Si-hwang (Duk-hwa Lee), and blames him for the death of her parents. Whatever she can do to spite him she will (and does), including her best shot at humiliating him and the longevity drug launch.

The various skirmishes that take place over the first few episodes as the characters size up their opponents and lay down their initial strategies are plentiful and fun. Hang-woo will stoop at nothing to obtain his prize, including the seduction of Woo-hee (harder than it looks), and even taking a position with the competition.

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As the story unfolds, the stakes are raised and new players enter to give succor to Yoo Bang as he unexpectedly rises to meet every challenge. Blessed with boundless energy, enthusiasm, and an ability to think outside the proverbial box, Yoo Bang finds new allies in the form of Bun Kwae (Yong-hyun Yoon) and Jang Ryang (Il-woo Kim). Bun Kwae, although Yoo Bang’s manager, turns out to be from his hometown and Yoo Bang is his hyung, demanding his loyalty when the knives come out. Jang Ryang is one of the early casualties at Chu Han Group, thanks to the machinations of Mo Ga-bi and Park Bum-jang; as a former high-level vice-president at Chu Han Group, his insider knowledge of the business world proves invaluable to Yoo Bang. Il-woo Kim is particularly effective in this role; he comes off as slick and emotionally distant, but this persona slowly ebbs away and reveals a committed ally as he becomes increasingly invested in Yoo Bang’s war.

Satisfying on Many Levels

There are many ways to enjoy “History of a Salaryman.” There is both subtlety and high drama in the unfolding of the plotting that goes on in the war to win Chu Han Group. Anyone who has worked in the business world will appreciate the endless jockeying for positioning that takes place in this drama and recognize the actions of the players at the corporation as being perhaps all-too-familiar in their own workplace. That those moments of backstabbing and glory-hounding are played to the hilt will make those sequences highly entertaining. There pathos as well in the corporate battleground, because there must be consequences to make one care more deeply about the success of the righteous. This too is very effective.

Where “Salaryman” really shines, however, is in the performances. Beom-soo Lee is certainly a versatile actor and has proven himself equally at home in melodrama as he is in physical comedies. The role of Yoo Bang could be said to be tailor-made for him. Yoo Bang is a happy bundle of contradictions; he is at times oblivious to the point of being a dimwit and at other times he is an inspired strategist. One could almost call him an idiot sauvant! He is tender and respectful of women, specifically of Woo-hee, but much more careless and concerned about Yeo-chi (of course, she does swear like a sailor, so perhaps that has taken the bloom off that particular rose from Yoo Bang’s perspective). He is aware of his humble origins but he never lets that serve as a reason to kneel before those who consider themselves his betters and those humble origins keep him in tune with the problems of the working class. He is naïve, and yet so savvy when it comes to human nature – he is a force of nature! In every scene with his adversary – be it Yeo-chi fighting him as she’s fighting her grandfather’s orders or Hang-woo thinking he has the upper hand (but why is this yappy little dog of a guy always there in my face?) – Beom-soo Lee snaps and cracks with vitality.

Equally, Ryu-won Jung starts out spectacularly and finishes even more so. There have been times where she has played characters that have been annoying and needy (watch “My Name is Kim Samsoon,” for example), and has been difficult for this writer to warm to, but with every scene Jung takes the role of Yeo-chi and makes her character a living, breathing, unforgettable person. Rather than the foul-mouthed princess she seems at the start of the story, Yeo-chi is a foul-mouthed intellectually under-challenged and hurting young woman. Keeping company with the honorable and very challenging Yoo Bang is just the right sort of stimulus to help her come out of her shell and blossom. In particular, there is an especially fine scene in the latter episodes of the drama that, were this a U.S. drama and eligible, would proudly go on an Emmy reel for consideration for that award. It is excellent work.

The complex role played by Gyu-woon Jung as Hang-woo is also worthy of notice. He is called upon to be superficially handsome and physically compelling and as he is, this seems no great challenge for him as an actor, however Hang-woo is also driven, jealous, single-minded, egotistical, and Machiavellian – except where Woo-hee is concerned. The honesty and vulnerability that Gyu-woon Jung brings to this dichotomy makes you root for Hang-woo, all the while you know that a villain who does not repent his unscrupulous ways must be punished. You are never left confused, thinking that somehow he is right to pursue the destruction of Chu Han Group, Yeo-chi, and Yoo Bang at whatever the cost. He is wrong to do so, but yet, there is the side of him that he shows around Woo-hee… “If only…,” you think.

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Finally, the dialogue itself comes in for special praise as well, for if the characters were not so sharply defined by the words they say this drama would not shine half so brightly. The give-and-take verbal sparring between characters is fast and ably delivered by the cast. It is insightful in terms of understanding the foibles of humans in various walks of life and under conditions both delightful and most stressful. Every episode spent with the characters of “Salaryman” flies by with shocking speed; the hour speeds by and you’re left disappointed that it’s over so soon. There is only one solution: set aside long blocks of time to watch this drama several episodes at a time – preferably when you do not need to rise early the next day. (You may just find yourself too entwined in the world of the “Salaryman” to leave it behind!)

Bobby Kim: The Heart of a Performer and Soul of an Artist

Note: This article was written for The Korean Quarterly and relates the events of a concert attended by this author in September, 2010.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Wonju City, about a 2-hour drive from Seoul, and the first of the two concerts that will close out Bobby Kim’s “Heart & Soul” tour is about to begin. The lights come up, and with the audience in eager anticipation; he takes to the stage, trim and urbane in a light-colored double-breasted jacket, open-necked shirt, with an elegant flair reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr.

Kim opens the show with “Hotel California,” the signature hit from 1976 for country rock legends, the Eagles. And immediately you know, this is going to be a very personal journey into the musical world of Bobby Kim.

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Photo credit: Oscar Entertainment

After the concert, Kim graciously spared some time from his rest period before the final show to respond to a few questions about his career, sharing both past experiences, his professional philosophy, and future aspirations.

Once introductions were out of the way, our attention immediately turned to the extraordinary range of the concert’s set list. After opening with the Eagles’ number, Kim ventured into Motown territory; later he engaged the audience in a sing-along of McCartney’s “Let It Be,” one of the last songs recorded by the Beatles – selections revealing his culturally diverse background and tastes. He spoke of how artists such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, and others influenced him and shaped his musical vocabulary while growing up in California. Rock, soul, reggae, Kim professed a passion for a wide variety of musical genres. Throughout the concert he’d demonstrated this versatility, letting his warm and flexible voice soar through the R&B and soul-tinged songs from his latest album, “Heart & Soul,” and prior releases, such as the well-received  “Love Chapter: 1.” In a later set, Kim traded the elegantly tailored look and sound for well-worn jeans, tee, and jacket and hit back hard with the rap numbers. In both instances he was equally at home and had the audience at his command.

Another important contributor to his musical story is his father, Yong-geun Kim, a professional trumpeter, who moved the family to the States to pursue his own vision, and in doing so, exposed his son to both a wide musical world and different cultures. This eclectic sampling of genres from an early age has taken root in Bobby’s talented mind. One of the things he expressed great pleasure in was borrowing from this broad spectrum and incorporating it in new ways in his melodies. A perfect example of this can be found in one of the numbers performed during the concert, the lovely 소나무 (“Evergreen”), which borrows from the German Christmas melody, “O Tannenbaum,” and develops it into a poignant ballad.

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Photo credit: R Nystrom

Apparent during the concert and supported by his remarks, Bobby Kim is a generous artist, ready to share the stage with those who bring the same passion to the music. The concert featured Kim sharing the spotlight with Ghan-D and Juvie Train, performing a number of songs from their Buga Kingz releases that pulsed with energy. Their joy in performing together was visible and set the audience to dancing in their seats and in the aisles with equal abandon.

This is due, perhaps, to his appreciation for the struggle to be heard. Debuting in 1994, Kim’s entrée to the professional world was not an easy one. Often referred to as the “grandfather of rap” for his early work in that genre, he admitted that being on the leading edge did not translate into success. Highly respected by his peers, he collaborated with a number of artists in the Korean music industry. In a voice that was modest and low-key after the efforts of the concert, Kim recounted how his solo recordings came about: while writing and shopping songs produced for other artists, he was encouraged by those who listened to the demo tracks he’d cut to record the songs for himself. His work as a solo artist was favorably received and in 2004, his recording of the song, 고래의 꿈 (“The Whale’s Dream”), topped the charts.

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Bobby Kim singing “The Whale’s Dream” (R Nystrom)

Along the way Kim has made conscious choices as a performer and a professional. He doesn’t want to take the path of the idol singer, performing on endless array of variety shows. He’s worked diligently to craft his music and wants to earn the respect of his audience through his music. The path he’s chosen has been at times slow and he’s met with his share of frustrations and disappointments, but his voice reveals both pride in the way he’s achieved his goals and a measure of determination to continue his journey in a way that is emotionally and creatively rewarding. Upon hearing his story it was evident that Kim’s music must indeed come from both his heart and soul. The words to the opening track of “Heart & Soul” are part anthem, part mission statement for Kim: “Free, so free, I do.”

What does the future hold for Bobby Kim? He is currently working on a single that he is featured on with Korean rapper Double K and will be produced by a famous Japanese producer. Several months ago it was also announced that Kim will be releasing an album and holding his first concert in Japan, with a targeted dates in mid-November. What will this mean for the artist? With the growing interest in Korean music evident in Japan, the potential exists for a successful expansion into a new fan base of some of the largest consumers of music in the world. This represents a new challenge for Bobby Kim, and one that he has the talent and determination to take on.

When asked about plans to return to the States and an opportunity for fans here to enjoy his performances, Kim welcomed the possibility and expressed an interest in doing so. All that’s required is the right invitation to make that a reality. In the meantime, Bobby Kim’s fans will have to content themselves to enjoying his
growing body of work on CDs.

Bobby Kim Discography*

Solo Albums

  • Heart & Soul (2010)
  • Love Chapter: 1 (2009)
  • Follow Your Soul (2006)
  • Beats Within My Soul (2004)
  • Holy Bumz Presents (1998, reissued in 2005 as Ground Zero)

Buga Kingz

  • The Menu (2008)
  • The Renaissance (2005)
  • Bugalicious (2001)

* Bobby Kim is also featured on recordings of other artists such as Drunken Tiger and the Brown Eyed Girls, and is featured on the OSTs for a number of Korean drama series, most recently for “Dr. Champ.” A smartphone application for “Heart & Soul” is also available on iTunes. Bobby Kim is represented by Oscar Entertainment.

A Fairy Tale Setting for an Adult Fairy Tale

Written for the Korean Quarterly

Full disclosure: “Lovers in Prague” is one of those dramas that will always have a top position on my life list of favorite dramas and I hope that you will say the same thing when you have finished watching it as well. I’ve pressed it on friends who have grown weary of their diet of increasingly predictable and hyper sexed Spanish-language telenovelas and they’ve fallen on it with the eagerness of the long parched finding an oasis of pure water, then they email me after every episode to proclaim their love. “Ah! This is how romance is supposed to be!”

Yes, it’s that good.

Why does this drama resonate so? Let’s explore the many things that it does so well, beginning with the authentic flavor of its opening episodes in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Too often dramas or movies are set in a location and they are in and out of the place with only a quick nod to the top five places to see. Not so here.

From the red-tiled rooftops to the narrow lanes, from the views of the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge to the wide spaces of the Old Town Square, you feel that the characters inhabit a real place. There are several enduring mental images I carry with me from my own visit to Prague that seem particularly appropriate symbols for the drama: the first are the city’s cobblestone streets and walkways. At a glance they look smooth and sturdy, but make no mistake – if you approach them carelessly (leave the high heels at home, ladies) you’ll end up at the very least with aching feet and at worst with a twisted ankle. They’re complex, rugged, irregular, and durably solid. Kind of like police Sergeant Choi Sang-hyun, played by Kim Joo-hyuk.

Another is the soaring nave of St. Vitus Cathedral and the intricate and glowing stained glass windows. Inspiring, creative, joyful, they remind me of the dedication and hard work of many, and of the resourceful, optimistic, and persistent diplomat Yoon Jae-hee, played by Jeon Do-yeon.

The final image that is incorporated so charmingly into the drama is that of the puppets of Prague. The art of puppetry, both their creation and the stagecraft of puppets, is as much a part of the Prague artistic scene as their devotion to Mozart (who had his first big professional success in the city). When I think of how a simple figure, in the hands of a master puppeteer can be made to perform any number of complicated steps, I think of the special prosecutor Ji Young-woo, played by Kim Min-joon. As the story progresses, the subtle symbolism works its magic on me.

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The greatest part of the drama’s success is, of course, due to the excellent work of its strong ensemble cast.

You have a leading man who is dependable, loyal, kind, brave, modest, and yes, manly. You have a leading lady who is intelligent, optimistic, willing to fight for her beliefs, plucky but not childish, and so giving and lovable. The false lover is angry, frustrated, fair-minded (to a point), but unrelenting. And the portrayal by each of these three leads of those characteristics is perfection.

In addition this trio of stellar performances, Yoon Se-ah manages to portray that perfect mixture of pitiable and despicable in the role of Kim Hye-joo, the girl who decides to upgrade her situation in life by pursuing a rich older man, rather than settle for a kindhearted, hardworking police sergeant. Kim Seung-wook has a colorful turn as Sergeant Choi’s partner, whereas Yoon Young-joon shines as Jae-hee’s fellow diplomatic core worker and friend, playing in an unsentimental fashion the part of a handicapped young man. Lee Jung-gil is Jae-hee’s father, the perfect counterpart to Young-woo’s father (played by Jung Dong-hwan), president to evil corporate magnate (the aforementioned rich older man and principal puppet master). Also making a more humorous appearance is Ha Jung-woo as Jae-hee’s bodyguard, and Jang Geun-seuk as her younger brother. With such a talented cast, it’s not remarkable perhaps that they make every scene so memorable.

The Bruiser and the Belle

We first meet our protagonist, Sergeant Choi Sang-hyun as he and his partner are busting heads and rounding up smugglers, earning him an arm injury and a few assorted cuts and a Presidential commendation. He modestly proclaims, when queried by the President about his girlfriend, that Korea is his lover, unlike the young man next to him (Ji Young-woo), also up for a commendation, who remarks that he’s hoping to win a special lady.

Wanting to share the details of the ceremony with his fiancée, Sang-hyun calls her long distance in Prague, but is abruptly told by her to forget she ever existed. Alarmed and perplexed by this, he takes off to find her and discover the cause for this turn of events. Arriving in Prague, he spots Jae-hee in a bar and, owing to her glamorous appearance (she’s got an embassy event to attend), assumes she’s an expensive call girl and he’s ashamed that a good Korean girl would behave such a way. Shortly thereafter, however, he’s forced to turn to her for aid when a local makes the mistake of attempting to pick his pocket.

Amused by his brashness, Jae-hee does help him, and intrigued, also agrees to help him find his fiancée. She’s very taken by his loyalty and candor, perhaps because five years ago, someone she cared about (Young-woo), left her with a promise to return but never did. Is the good Sergeant the kind of man who would abandon her? Definitely not. Plus, he’s a dedicated servant of the nation, a man just like her father, driven by principle. She’s more than interested. In return for her help in finding Hye-joo, she needs his help – will he participate with her in a tandem marathon representing Korea? The manner in which he does come to do so is the deciding factor in her falling completely in love with this man. He is never going to be the type to leave her waiting and wondering.

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Of course, Sang-hyun has other things on his mind, like a shockingly unfaithful girlfriend, and the ending of the life path he had plotted out for the two of them. To him, he is more likely to believe a dog than another woman, he tells Jae-hee. This is not going to be so simple.

Complicating matters, she is wrapping up her Prague assignment and will be returning to Korea. Will their paths cross? It won’t be easy, diplomats and sergeants don’t tend to move in the same social circles (especially if the good Sergeant Choi has anything to say about it). However, a lucky traffic violation brings them into contact once again, much to Jae-hee’s delight.

An assignment on a special robbery task force also brings Sergeant Choi into contact with the other winner of the Presidential commendation, Ji Young-woo, and a temporary duty roster in the same building where Jae-hee works. Young-woo wastes no time letting Jae-hee know he’s still interested, but there is the unanswered question as to why he never came for her five years ago. He is territorial towards her, much to Sang-hyun’s amusement and annoyance. But Jae-hee has eyes only for Sergeant Choi and puts her campaign to convince him that a woman can be trusted into action.

Chemistry in Action

The roadblocks that the couple face might seem like some unrealistic fantasy plot in less capable hands. Instead, the issues that the Jae-hee and Sang-hyun will have to confront are powerful and emotional moments, thanks to the incredibly chemistry between Jeon Do-yeon and Kim Joo-hyuk. Their banter, their soul-searching glances, their ups and downs are all fascinating to watch. When they’re happy, you celebrate their happiness; when they’re devastated by various turn of events, you are devastated as well.

Kim Min-joon deserves special mention too. I confess when I watched this drama the first time I seriously despised Young-woo for being selfish, blind, and greedy because that’s how I saw the man who kept getting in the way of the two lovers being together. Upon my second viewing, however, I saw more nuances in his role and performance than I’d had the patience to see the first time around. His actions late in the drama are the lynch pins to the surprising resolution to the drama.

If there is a weakness to “Lovers in Prague,” it is the role of Jung Dong-hwan’s “Evil Daddy.” As the man who A) ruins his son’s life (potentially three sons’ lives), B) ruins a young woman’s life, and C) wants to ruin the President, it strains credibility a bit that he’d have that much power and his portrayal is a little formulaic, but all things considered, it’s a minor quibble in what is overall a highly satisfying drama.

Best of all is the gratifying resolution of the drama, unlike the puzzling ending to another title by the same team in the “Lovers” series, “Lovers in Paris.” The ending to “Lovers in Prague” will have you ready to pop disc one back in the DVD player for a return visit to a magical place – or searching online for travel deals to the Czech Republic to see whether the city can be as magical for you as it is for our two lovers. Either option is a very worthy choice!

You can watch “Lovers in Prague” at Dramafever.com.

A Sumptuous Feast for the Eyes

This review appears in the first quarter issue of the Korean Quarterly

Whether you enjoy 2007’s Le Grand Chef (Sik-gaek) will depend on how intense you like your drama flavored – if you prefer a delicate selection of complementary flavors that will pleasantly pass your palate, you’re in luck. If you’re looking for something a little spicier or complex, you may wish that the director had added little more, like the plot equivalent of red pepper paste and garlic, to the plot. However, if you’re the flexible type, open to whatever is served (provided it’s obvious that loving care was taken in its preparation), chances are you’ll be happy to spend time with the world portrayed within the movie.

Le Grand Chef is an adaptation of a popular manhwa with the same name. The screenplay was the collaborative effort of Sin Dong-ik and the movie’s director, Jeon Yoon-soo. The most tempting is the care and attention paid to the food. The broad spectrum of traditional Korean cuisine is the star of the show – so much so that it should truly have been titled, “Le Grand Cuisine.” From start to finish, one plate following another, tempting morsels fill the eye, even if sadly it is impossible to fill our stomachs! There is a celebration of simple and honest ingredients; choosing the freshest of vegetables, cooking what is in season, and taking the care to prepare things at the pace required by the food, not by any other clock. The scenes of food preparation during the competition sequences are colorful, rich, and varied, with particular emphasis on creating beautiful and sumptuous dishes. Each dish is a work of art. But it’s not all about the elaborate and labor intensive: there’s even a lesson on how to make the best ramyun – eat it when you’re really hungry!

The attractive Kim Kang-woo as Seong-chan, the young chef with a reputation to clear and prize to win brings a boyish simplicity to the film, and his earnest pursuit of simple and true cuisine is very appealing. Lee Ha-na as Jin-soo, the reporter who lends Seong-chan moral support and a friendly smile, provide a charming, albeit low-key couple. Im Won-hee as Bong-joo, the jealous competitor who believes that the competition is his to win at whatever price is sufficiently unpleasant for you to root against him immediately. Jeong Eun-pyo, Kim Sang-ho, Jeong Jin, and veteran actor Kim Jin-tae round out the main cast.

 

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The film opens with an important competition: a contest of skill to see who will inherit the mantle of head chef at a prestigious traditional restaurant. Seong-chan, who came to the restaurant as an apprentice years earlier, has a natural affinity for cooking and poses the greatest threat to Bong-joo, son of the current chef. The challenge is to prepare a special meal: the key ingredient is golden blowfish, a type of puffer fish that is known for being poisonous if improperly prepared. Both young men create visual works of art, yet mysteriously the judges fall ill after eating Seong-chan’s offering. Okay, maybe it’s not really mysterious how such a thing happened. You’ll immediately have your suspicions, thanks to the smug look on Bong-joo’s face. But however it comes about, Seong-chan’s career as a chef is in tatters and he retreats to the country and leaves the world of cooking in disgrace.

 

Over the next five years he lives a pastoral life, taking care of an increasingly senile grandfather, selling vegetables in the market, and raising a cow, lavishing care upon it as if it were a member of his family. He’s discovered a calm, ordered existence – the world of slow food, nature, and harmony and he’s content to live his life in this manner. You could say that his life has been put “on the back burner,” but this is all due to change.

 

A priceless artifact is being returned to Korea by a Japanese citizen whose ancestor was a government official during the late Chosun dynasty. It is the knife that belonged to the King’s head chef, such a fervent patriot that, when ordered to prepare food for the Japanese chose to cut off his hand, leaving a telltale notch in the blade. The knife will be the prize in the grandest of cooking competitions – a search for the chef who can best capture the true essence of native Korean cuisine.

 

Of course, Bong-joo, now the prosperous owner/chef of the famous restaurant feels that he’s the rightful heir to this prize but he knows that Seong-chan is out there, a serious threat to the throne. It turns out that someone else, an editor who’s met Seong-chan and shared meals with him, is thinking of shaking the young man free from his self-imposed exile. He sets out with Jin-soo, a feisty young reporter, to visit Seong-chan and begin the groundwork to get him entered into the competition. He leaves Jin-soo to persuade the recalcitrant chef and she is ably up to the task.

 

The competition engaged, there are a series of cooking battles as the field is narrowed down across the country. Soon it is a showdown between Seong-chan and Bong-joo. There are a number of side plots involving the various people who will come to the aid of Seong-chan in his mission, some with more impact than others. There is also a subtle side plot concerning the identity of an assistant chef who may have poisoned that head chef to the king – almost too subtle. If you are not paying close attention, you will miss the gist of the story, though if you do, it will not affect the flavor of the movie in general.

 

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With a formula movie of this nature, the outcome is sure to be rightfully pleasant, even if it will not be a great surprise. There are a number of gently heartwarming moments, even one to provoke a tear or two, even if you’re not stomping your feet and cheering with emotion at the end. The relationship between Seong-chan and Jin-soo is virtually a non-issue, yet you know that there’s a future relationship there, if only by the way they once again “meet cute” in the final scene. There’s not a lot of heat between the two characters, but there is a sense of companionship, and a natural ease between them.

 

I think that Kim Kang-woo could have brought a greater sense of passion for cooking to his role, if not while he was rusticating, then certainly once he’d joined into the competitive fray. And while I could also wish to have been a little more surprised with certain plot elements, I still enjoyed Le Grand Chef quite a bit and it held up quite well to a second viewing. So, with reservations (make yours at your favorite Korean restaurant for a time immediately following the screening of the movie), this movie is a gentle and quietly delightful gem.

 

Note: The food preparation sequences in this movie may make it difficult viewing for many animal lovers or the generally squeamish. Be advised!  The love story is entirely G-rated.