Twisty South Korean import The Recipe follows a TV producer's mission to find out why a serial killer on death row made his last request a bowl of stew. Not just any bowl of stew, but a special type of dwinjang jjigae bean curd soup that has been known to bring tears of joy to whomever samples or smells it. The quest for this particularly intoxicating soup leads to a mysterious woman whose meticulous food preparation techniques add to her allure. Although dwinjang jjigae is apparently a common dish in Korean cuisine, the lengths that The Recipe's central character go to in order to find its origins are anything but ordinary.
The Recipe begins as TV documentary producer Choi Yu-jim (played by Ryu Seung-ryong) gains valuable knowledge of notorious mass murderer Kim Jong-gu's final request - the soup, a bowl of which he was eating when he was arrested. The dwinjang jjigae had such an intoxicating aroma that the police officers on the scene had to wait until Kim Jong-gu was finished consuming it before arresting him. Choi Yu-jim's quest to find the maker of the stew leads him to a rural restaurant in the forests outside Seoul. The daffy lady who runs the restaurant informs Choi Yu-jim that the stew was made by an enigmatic young woman by the name of Jang Hye-jin (Lee Yo-weon) who showed up one day at her eatery needing a job. In the effort to track down Jang Hye-jin, the intrepid Choi Yu-jim finds that the woman had vanished recently. Piece by piece, he uncovers details about the unique ingredients and preparation methods used in her stew recipe.
The process of unraveling the mystery is so involving for Choi Yu-jim that he pursues the story even after his scoop (about the serial killer's odd final request) is broke open on the local news. Despite getting the story dropped by his skeptical editor at the TV station, he moves ahead on his own in finding out everything he can about the enigmatic woman behind this extraordinary dish. He eventually finds that Jang Hye-jin's passion for making the perfect dwinjang jjigae was tied in with the romantic feelings she shared with Kim Hyeon-su (Lee Dong-wook), a local man who made the ceramic crocks so essential for preparing the soybean curd that goes into that intoxicating stew.
The Recipe's admittedly interesting tale is told in a strange, patchwork-like manner by rookie director Anna Lee (this is her second feature). The film's first third or so is played for comedy in contrived quasi-documentary style (think The Office or Modern Family) with actor Ryu Seung-ryong set up as a goofy, not very authoritative protagonist. The style shifts markedly when actress Lee Yo-weon first appears as the mysterious stew goddess, however. As the film progresses, the various ways in which Choi Yu-jim discovers certain elements of the recipe get visualized with magic realism, CGI graphics and even a hand-drawn animated segment. It's intriguing, if somewhat jarring, filmmaking.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of The Recipe is the insight it offers into the preparation of this rather humble bean stew. The film has a very Asian sensibility in demonstrating that the process of making something is important than the final product (oddly enough, the stew itself is hardly ever shown being eaten or enjoyed). For Americans weaned on Wendy's and McDonalds, it's an eye-opener. The film also benefits from the appealing performances of Ryu Seung-ryong and the suitably gorgeous Lee Yo-weon. They enliven what would normally be a forgettable bit of fluff, especially when the film descends into standard romantic gobbledygook in its final half.
Pathfinder Home Entertainment's DVD of The Recipe sports a single stereo audio option for its Korean soundtrack. It has a good, clear mix. The optional English subtitles have a few typos, but are otherwise easy to read.
Although the packaging says 16x9 anamorphic, the image on the disc is proportionately closer to 2.35:1. The picture quality is nicely balanced if somewhat jagged looking during scenes with lots of movement.
The film's only extras are a theatrical trailer and a four-minute making-of featurette (really just behind-the-scenes footage shot on lesser-quality video). The DVD also contains trailers for other Pathfinder Pictures releases, such as I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK.
The Recipe serves as a slight but enjoyable diversion for quirky Asian cinema and/or foodie film aficionados. Don't bother digging for anything substantial, however - like many Asian dishes, the film will leave most hungry for something different a few hours later. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.