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Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle
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by Jay Seaver

"A fine combination of new and old ingredients."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Looking at the cast list for "Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle" should raise some alarms; the main couple from the first film has been recast and a completely new character has first billing. Given that the plot is in large part a repeat of the first film, this looks like something that would normally go direct to video. And yet, it apparently not only played Korean theaters, but apparently got a small simultaneous release in America.

The basics of the story are the same: After a diplomatic incident with Japan, a nationwide tournament is instituted to celebrate kimchi as a uniquely Korean dish and find the best examples of it on the peninsula. One of the contestants, Jang-eun (Kim Jeong-eun), is returning to Korea from Japan after ten years, during which she had climbed to the level of the Prime Minister's Executive Chef. It's also a chance for her to reconnect with her mother, Soo-hyang (Lee Bo-hee), whose restaurant Chunyang-gak is likely closing in the face of its debts - which is fine with Jang-eun. It sits less well with Soo-hyang's foster son, Sung-chan (now played by Jin Goo), the greengrocer who won the competition in the first film. Prodded by his girlfriend Jin-soo (now played by Wang Ji-hye), he enters the competition, hoping to use the prize money to keep the restaurant open - although even when they were kids, he has never beat his sister in a cooking competition.

Kimchi Battle avoids doing a lot of things that other sequels might go for in the same situation: We don't see Sung-chan particularly changed by his success in the previous film, having to get back in touch with his working-class origins; he's pretty much the same guy he was before. When we first see Jin-soo, she's grumbling on the phone to her boss, asking why he thinks she always knows where Sung-chan is, raising fears that the filmmakers will pull the "they broke up off-screen and now must rediscover their love for each other" thing. But, no, they're still together, if not terribly demonstrative, which is about right; romance was never the thrust of the first one. And while it seems Sung-chan has gotten an entirely new family history in this film, it's okay, because it introduces us to Jang-eun.

When I saw the first Le Grand Chef, one of the things I liked was that its antagonist never really seemed to feel comfortable in the villain role, and the same can definitely be said for Kim Jeong-eun as Jang-eun: While she could very easily be construed as the bad guy of the film - she is the icy daughter who left her family behind and is now willing to close the family restaurant in an act of petty revenge - she winds up too much Sung-chan's equal for that. She's written as smart and hard-working rather than taking classic bad-guy shortcuts, and Kim Jeong-eun plays her with just the right mix of pride in her accomplishments and resentment of the restaurant, her mother, and Sung-chan that she comes across as a complex personality, rather than an evil one.

This contrasts with Sung-chan, of course, who is still gregarious and dressed down. There's a nice contrast between Jang-eun's kitchen, all gleaming stainless steel with squared-off corners, and the more earthy kitchen where Sung-chan practices and develops his recipes. Sung-chan gets a mother-oriented plot too - he was adopted by Soo-hyang because his own gave him up - and it crowds the movie a little bit. A number of things do, including a storyline in the middle of the movie with a fugitive and his mother that likely fit into the original comics much better structurally, but feels oddly abandoned here.

The real draw for many audience members, of course, will be the cooking, and Kimchi Battle proves to be a fine food movie indeed. It may seem like an unusually specific one, but part of the point is that this side dish can take many, many forms, and director Baek Dong-hoo makes it look quite appetizing, even for those like me who wouldn't order the dish very often. The food is sumptuously photographed, and while the script occasionally falls into the habit of lecturing, it's interesting information and nicely parallels Jang-eun's journey as a character.

I wound up liking "Kimchi Battle" better than its predecessor, in fact; Jang-eun is a strong addition to the cast of characters, and both the story and food are allowed to conjure a larger variety of emotions.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21175&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/15/10 09:05:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/03/13 cole green I laughed, I cried, I got very hungry too! 5 stars
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Directed by
  Dong-hoon Baek

Written by
  Dong-ik Shin

  Jin Goo
  Jeong-eun Kim
  Ji-hye Wang
  Jong-won Choi

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