Six years after her New York-based cross-cultural marital drama Never Forever, Korean director Gina Kim returns to Asia with a food and family film about a high school student's discovery of his abilities and cultural roots.
Humility, harmony and a lot of heart: the three things that Final Recipe's protagonists discovered to be essential to a good dish are also what shape the film itself. Steering clear of the boisterous aesthetics of many a past masterchef-contest films – Stephen Chow's God of Cookery, say, or Jeon Yun-su'smanga adaptation Le Grand Chef – Korean director Gina Kim has delivered a mild, comforting oeuvre which channels a reaffirmation of cultural roots and traditional bonds within a crust of a family-reunited melodrama.
While the presence of Michelle Yeoh (who's also one of the film's many executive producers) would help raise Final Recipe's profile among Chinese-speaking audiences in both Asia and in the US – especially when the film, though taking place among Chinese characters in Singapore and Shanghai, is nearly entirely in English – the on-screen gastronomic pleasures would also ease the film into the now burgeoning food-film chain. Its appearance at San Sebastian Film Festival's culinary cinema section, to be followed by an opening-film slot at the Hawaii International Film Festival on Oct. 10, is bound to just the first outings in similarly-themed programs, mirroring – to a lesser scale, maybe – the travels of films such as Mostly Martha.
Playing the mastermind of a successful, long-running cooking-competition show – or, as the character Julia is described in the film, the gastronomic "grandmaster" – Yeoh is central to the proceedings. But more as a catalyst, mind, as Final Recipe is essentially a film about generational schisms among the men in a clan: the major ingredient in the formula here is Mark (a vibrant turn from the Canadian-Chinese K-pop star Henry Lau), a Singaporean high-school student whose enthusiasm and gift in preparing food are frowned upon by his chef-grandfather Hao (Chang Tseng), who single-handedly raised him with hopes of getting the boy into university rather than taking over his crumbling restaurant.
Running against past mainstream narratives of scions refusing to (and often finally relenting in) taking over a dated family business, Mark's enthusiasm lies solely on learning his grandfather's recipes and admiring, from afar, the career of David Chan (Singaporean-born Chin Han, The Dark Knightand Contagion), an established culinary mega-star of Julia's Shanghai-based TV show – and a man who also recounts of having to rebel against a vanished masterchef-father who tried the utmost in trying to derail his aspirations for a career in the kitchen.
With his grandfather falling ill and his eatery getting nearer to be shuttered for good – partly due to the old man's open disdain for customers who disagree with his self-proclaimed "real cooking" – Mark's gambit lies with using what should have been his university fees and fly off in the hope of winning the $1 million cash prize in the Julia-David "Final Recipe" competition. Taking the place of a Russian contestant who doesn't turn up, the teenager deploys his youthful spunk (cooking an omelette over burning documents when the stove doesn't work) and inventiveness (revitalizing the pepper paste in the Korean rice dish bibimbap, or serving noodles as dumplings) to emerge into the final showdown with David – a clash which, as Julia's introduction illustrates, would look at "what family tastes like".
It's certainly not that difficult to guess what the film's big reveal is, especially when David tells Mark – or "Dmitri", as he's known – during a brief meeting in the market that "if you're my kid, I'll be very very proud". But it's the expectation of reconciliation and reunion that drives Final Recipe – it's the antithesis of the Gordon Ramsay-style reality TV spectacles – an advocacy of warm, interpersonal concordwhich glosses over some of the logical flaws in the back stories which led to Mark's and David's agony and angst.
Despite having her own screenplay reworked by George Huang – a fact which explains Final Reciperesembling a director making a big leap into mainstream-style story-plotting – Kim has shown herself still able to mine some of the themes in Never Forever, her Vera Farmiga-starring 2007 Sundance hit about an American woman recruiting a Korean immigrant to impregnate her so as to save her marriage with her Korean-American husband. Final Recipe is all about turning one's back on middling cultural fusion and returning to one's roots. The once London-based Julia would find her success back in China, and so would the Singapore-raised Mark find inspiration (from the Shanghainese street snacks which mesmerized him), his big break and estranged parent there; the young chef's earthly dishes – derided by an American connoisseur as "peasant cooking" – rings in greater acclaim (from the Asian judges) than the fancy French pretensions of his fellow Japanese contestant Kaori (Lika Minamoto).
Backed with a polished production design and more than competent technical values, Final Recipe – which is backed by South Korea's CJ Entertainment – is Kim's ticket to prove her credentials for entry into her home country's commercial filmmaking arena. And with the Seoul-based major now flexing its international co-production muscles, they might look at Kim with some confidence as she conjures a non-exotic piece out of a territory-trotting narrative, where every place is made to seem like home.
— Clarence Tsui (September 26, 2013)