Doenjang (Anna Lee, 2010)
Fifteen minutes into Doenjang, released in English-speaking countries as The Recipe, I wanted a bowl of doenjang stew just as much as the characters in the movie, and at the time I had no idea what doenjang even was. (I paused the movie and looked it up; as far as I can tell it’s kind of a Korean version of spicy natto, but mashed rather than whole beans.) By the end of the movie, I wanted one even more. Anna Lee, turning in her first movie, smacked one right out of the park; Doenjang is foodie paradise, with huge dollops of romance and mystery, along with a dash of fantasy, and the whole is a great deal of fun.
Plot: Hyeon-soo Kim (Arang‘s Dong-wook Lee), an infamous criminal, goes to the noose wishing for a bowl of doenjang stew. This is pounced on in the same way as Charles Kane’s “Rosebud!” on his deathbed; TV producers scramble to figure out why this guy was so interested in doenjang stew. (For those unfamiliar with Korean food, this would be the equivalent of an American prisoner wishing for, say, mac and cheese on his way to the gallows.) Yoo-jin Choi (Secret‘s Seung-ryong Ryu) is one of those producers, and he eventually tracks down the restaurant where Hyeon-soo was apprehended. It seems there was a woman there named Hye-jin (Attack the Gas Station!‘s Yu-won Lee) whose doenjang stew possessed supernatural qualities. (Yoo-jin hires a team of chemists to examine a bit of the stew, and one of the things they find is that the salt is 100% pure. “I’ve never seen anything above 99.8%!”) While the other stations are putting their stories together, Yoo-jin asks his boss for one more week, and goes off hunting Hye-jin, who disappeared into thin air just after that encounter.
The bulk of the movie is Yoo-jin chasing after Hye-jin’s trail, and Lee and screenwriter Se-yeong Bae (In Love and War) set this up as a typical “Yoo-jin finds Hye-jin and they fall in love” romance. But that is not the direction the movie turns, which just adds to the fun. The script is not afraid to ask questions, much more incisive questions that one finds in most romances, and more impressively it is not afraid to leave some of those questions unanswered (as they would be were this a piece of nonfiction). The acting is just as good as you’d expect given that roster, and Lee does a fantastic job for a first-time director. A charming little gem that deserves a great deal more exposure in this country than it has gotten so far. *** ½
[the clip a few down from this was mostly in Korean, but in English it said “li yo wan. Doenjang girl. legs.” Not that I’m saying you should check that out or anything. honest.]