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.