Haeundae-gu, Busan, Republic of Korea,
KO-pick: A smorgasbord of Korean food on the big screen
Eight Korean dishes as seen through films
Korean cinema has acquired a global audience by telling captivating stories of people maturing in the criminal underground, unusual romances between characters living very different lives, and arthouse films addressing socioeconomic inequality. Outside of the movie theater, there is another component of Korean culture that is gaining appeal throughout the world, one that is just as important to the Korean experience - the country's rich culinary legacy, sometimes referred to as K-food. There is no doubting food occupies an essential part of Korean culture; after all, the country is the originator of the mukbang, a genre of web video content in which influencers show themselves eating extravagant meals. This can also be observed in the fact that many meals are tied to significant occasions, seasons, weather or hold a distinct significance.
It also makes for an excellent narrative device to be used in films. From opulent feasts to straightforward yet comforting street food, Korean films have a propensity for displaying cuisine in a mouthwatering way. This week, we welcome you to a cinematic feast for your senses, whether you're a film buff or a foodie. Just remember not to watch these with an empty stomach.
Royal court cuisine in Le Grand Chef (2007) by Jeon Yun-su
The first film on our list is Le Grand Chef, a film based on a newspaper cartoon about Korean cuisine's heritage. A Japanese man who has obtained the cooking knife of Korea's last royal cook wishes to return it to Korea, but not to anybody; instead, he intends to host a tournament to find someone whose culinary talents are worthy of carrying on that highly regarded tradition. Seong-chan, a cook who fled to the countryside following a food poisoning incident, sees this as an opportunity to make a comeback and challenge his life-long adversary. This gastronomic epic transports us to the realm of fine dining reinterpretations of old royal court meals, providing a true visual feast for food enthusiasts. A sequel, released in 2010, centers on a contest to make the finest kimchi.
Fried chicken in Extreme Job (2019) by Lee Byoung-heon
Next up, it's time for some hearty laughs and tasty fried chicken with "Extreme Job." While fried chicken did not originate in Korea, it is here that this popular food was elevated to a state-of-the-art delicacy. "Extreme Job" is an action-comedy extravaganza that follows a squad of detectives who, after failing to apprehend a drug trafficking organization, decide to take over a failing fried chicken business in order to conduct a stakeout on the gang's headquarters situated across the street. What they didn't expect was for their improvised formula to be a smash with the locals, forcing them to run a wildly successful company in order to keep the act going while still performing their work.
You can practically smell the crispy, golden bits of deliciousness through the screen as they fight crime by day and cook chicken by night. "Extreme Job" appeared out of nowhere in early 2019 and grabbed the country by storm, becoming Korea's second most seen title ever with over 16 million tickets sold, wich represents over one-third of the country's population. Laughter, it turns out, is the perfect flavor for any meal, especially when that meal is Korea's most popular dish.
Dwaeji gukbap in The Attorney (2013) by Yang Woo-suk
Anyone up for some legal maneuvering and soul-warming soup? "The Attorney" tells the story of a Busan-based lawyer who fights against government officials for what he feels is right, finding strength and drive in bowls of dwaeji gukbap. A pig bone broth-based soup with pork meat slices and rice and commonly garnished with green onion, red pepper paste, and fermented shrimps, constitutes the emblematic dish of the harbor city. This stirring drama is based on the actual tale of the late Roh Moo-hyun, a civil rights lawyer in the early 1980s who went on to become South Korea's president. One day, just after the birth of his first child, he took the difficult decision to leave a dwaeji gukbap restaurant without paying for his meal, as he needed the little money he had left to buy law books. He returns seven years later as a successful lawyer to apologize, only for the restaurant owner to congratulate him and offer him the meal. Forever grateful, he from then on eats there every time he can, and whenever he needs some solace. When the owner's only son is arrested, tortured and falsely accused of "communist activities" by the authoritarian state, he does not hesitate to take the issue into his own hands, paving the way for him to become a human rights lawyer.
Spicy tteokbokki in Spirit Of Jeet Keun Do - Once Upon A Time In High School (2004) by Yoo Ha
Our trip through Korean cinema's K-food takes an edgier turn with "Once Upon a Time in High School." This coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of an anarchic high school, introduces us to tteokbokki, an inexpensive snack made up of rice cakes served in chili soup that children and teens delight in. The film is about a student in high school who admires Bruce Lee and draws on his lessons to thwart harsh authority at school and brutal feuds with classmates. After lessons, the sizzling tteokbokki café serves as a safe haven for students to be themselves, away from their parents and professors. A representation of adolescent rebellion, perhaps, but some of them have less admirable goals since they are infatuated with the woman who is in charge of the business.
Ramyeon in One Fine Spring Day (2001) by Hur Jin-ho
Sometimes the simplest foods produce the most intimate connections. In "One Fine Spring Day," a love tale emerges as a sound engineer pairs up with a radio producer to journey across Gangwon Province in search of natural sounds to utilize in her radio show. "Do you want to have ramyeon?" she asks him one night after he offers her a ride back home, having enjoyed their time together. He accepts, and this becomes the beginning point for their relationship. With its soothing simplicity and convenience, Korean instant noodles have become a symbol of fast food for busy people, a short snack between meals for young people, but also a tiny indulgence late at night. The film emphasizes the latter element in order to allow the budding couple to spend more time together while establishing an intimate moment. As time passes, eating ramyeon together becomes a ritual for them and follows the evolution of their relationship. In real life, as it turns out, the line has since become a common expression used by couples when they don't want their date to end prematurely.
Jjajangmyeon in Castaway on the Moon (2009) by Lee Hae-jun
"Castaway on the Moon" is a whimsical adventure in which a guy is trapped on an empty island on the Han River, in the middle of Seoul. While the reason he ended himself in this condition is that he jumped from a bridge with the goal of ending his life, he finds a new purpose when he discovers a nearly empty packet of instant jjajangmyun noodles amid the garbage that ends up on this barren land. The sight of this basic bowl of noodles paired with a rich black bean sauce, celebrated as an inexpensive everyday meal that students and workers like to get delivered, is enough to make him crave it like never before. With few resources, he manages to grow all of the ingredients required to cook the dish. As it becomes a genuine life ambition, he refuses to be rescued or even offered jjajangmyeon delivery. And months later, he finally gets to enjoy the flavor of a well-earned bowl of noodles.
Baeksuk in The Way Home (2002) by Lee Jeong-hyang
In "The Way Home," the focus is on an elderly mute lady who lives in a small village in a thatched-roof house with no power or running water. Her daughter, who lives in Seoul, unexpectedly begs her to look after her own boy over the summer break. To a seven-year-old child accustomed to the conveniences of the city, spending so much time in such a different setting is a culture shock, but his grandma continues to go to tremendous lengths to make him as comfortable as possible. He once requests fried chicken instead of the home-cooked dishes he was served. The grandma, who misinterpreted the request, takes the whole journey down to the village to buy a whole chicken so she can prepare a baeksuk, which is chicken simmered for hours in a clear and simple soup. Despite all of the care and affection she put in this dish, the kid screams and refuses to touch the food. But when he wakes up in the middle of the night, hungry, he finally tastes the food and finishes the entire bowl. This lovely short examines the generational divide and how love and healing may be shown in the smallest act, such as providing a special dinner.
Makgeolli in Under the Sky of Seoul (1961) by Kim Seung-ho
As we wrap up our cinematic culinary journey, let's step back in time to 1961 with "Under the Sky of Seoul." In this classic, you'll be transported to Seoul at a time when it was witnessing a lot of transformation. A practitioner of traditional Koren medicine is having trouble navigating this period of modernization and change of values, especially in his role as the patriarch of the family. His son might have gotten his girlfriend pregnant, and his daughter does the affront of dating his rival, a Western-trained doctor who set up his clinic just across the street. As he and his pals try to solve several issues occurring in their private life or in their neighborhood, they often gather at the local bar to drink makgeolli, Korea's beloved rice wine. Before soju became the most sold alcohol in Korea, makgeolli was the common people’s drink of choice, before it became associated with the old world and the countryside. Today, it’s enjoying a newfound popularity.