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December 12, 2012

The Recipe (된장) – Korean film review

Movie poster for The Recipe;The Recipe, entitled 된장 (Doenjang) in Korea, came out in 2010. It won several well-deserved international awards for Korean-born director, Anna Lee.

Doenjang is impossible to classify. There’s a romance, but we don’t even begin to learn about it until halfway through the film. A journalist pursues a story, but the nature of that story repeatedly morphs. There’s magical lightness where we would expect to find sadness. There’s even a break into animation. Somehow these ingredients swirl together into a unique, cohesive dish, a recipe indeed.

Doenjang is the Korean word for fermented soybean paste, usually known by the Japanese name miso in the U.S. The Recipe opens with a jaded TV producer (Ryoo Seung Ryong), barely listening to a story pitch by a student who hopes to win an internship. The producer shamelessly steals the tip, for a true crime/human interest story, and the student is seen no more.

Soon, as the producer pursues leads, the focus of the story shifts. Tracking the elusive ingredients of a legendary dish across the Korean countryside, he becomes witness to a passionate perfectionism and artistry that elevates the mundane to a higher, deeper calling. Eventually, so gradually and naturally that there is no seam to notice, the mystery evolves into a pastoral romance between Lee Yo Won and Lee Dong Wook which seems to take place outside of time.

Through all of this, the producer serves as the story’s narrator and chauffeur. His presence, and his own transformation, is so understated that we don’t even realize how much the film was about him until after it’s over.

Doenjang reminds me a little of the 2007 Taiwanese film, The Most Distant Course. Both are road films with a twist, about a journey from the numbness, cynicism and rush of modern urban life to a still, receptive unity with the natural environment, and incidentally, love. However, the intrinsic presence of food as the vital force in all relationships, social and ecological, is quintessentially Korean.

I don’t really want to say a lot more about The Recipe, since it speaks for itself better than I possibly can. Just see it.

10 comments to The Recipe (된장) – Korean film review

  • Tigerflower

    I finally caught my Hulu queue up enough to watch this movie and it was as remarkable as the review says! Some of the early humour seemed at odds with the dark beginnings but I stayed on the journey and by the middle was truly engrossed. It was more thoughtful than my usual fare but I really enjoyed it!

    • Mihansa

      So glad you liked it. Isn’t it magical, and original? It carries the Korean transformation theme a step further, transforming not just characters within the film, but the film itself. Though come to think of it, the drama Soul aka Hon aka Possessed also does that, but in a far darker way.

      Films that are hard to categorize often get overlooked. The Recipe deserves better. Spread the word.

      The director, Anna Lee (Korean name: Lee Suh Goon) has only directed one other film, Rub Love, in 1998. By all accounts, it’s quite different. The plot sounds pretty standard for Korean drama, but I’d still like to see it, as Korean woman directors are few and far between! Haven’t been able to find it online. If anyone runs across it, a link would be appreciated.

  • Claudine

    Hi! Thank you very much for this review but I wish to make a correction. The actor playing the journalist/producer is Ryu Seung Ryong and the one playing the boyfriend is Lee Dong Wook.

  • Wren

    A story beautifully told. I’m glad I hung on until the end but it’s left me with more unanswered questions. I’ve read many reviews and I’m just gotten more confused.

  • Wren

    Some of the reviews I’ve come across are saying that the notorious criminal is the character (but a different name) that LDW plays. I just got confused when there is a time-warp and LDW’s character resurfaces to tell his story.

    • Mihansa

      Hmm, if there is a connection between the boyfriend and the serial killer, I missed it. Did we ever actually see the killer’s face? I have a vague impression that he was a big guy, but it’s been awhile since I saw the film. The DramaBeans description identifies Ryoo Seung Ryong as the killer, but sounds like it was based on a press release that described the film before it was released. Is that the review you mean? Korean pre-press often doesn’t match the film/drama that ultimately emerges, for whatever reason. However, I’ll be happy to view it again when I have time, which should be soon, as the drama I’m currently watching ends this weekend, and I’ll watch for that and let you know.

  • Wren

    So, the reporter meets a “ghost”?

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