FINAL RECIPE (2013) review

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Having premiered in various festivals in 2013 and 2014, Gina Kim’s Final Recipe had to wait two years to get released anywhere, and has still only come out in Mainland China. A South Korean-Thai production shot in English and Mandarin, it tells of Mark (Henry Lau), a student who was raised by his grandfather Hao (Chang Tseng), after his mother died and his father left on a business trip and never came back. Hao owns a restaurant but his exacting standards and bad temper have chased customers and employees away, and foreclosure is impending. Thus Mark decides to join a TV cooking competition called Final Recipe, hosted and run by Julia Lee (Michelle Yeoh) and her husband David Chan (Chin Han), who lost a son years ago before meeting her. In order to enter the show, Mark has to pose as a Russian contestant who didn’t show up, and soon rises through the ranks under the name Dimitri Bekmambetov. But one day as Julia Lee tastes a pork dish the young man just made, she is instantly reminded of the first time she met her husband, fifteen years before…

It’s hard to understand why Final Recipe has stayed buried for what in theatrical years amounts to an eternity, especially given the popularity of TV cooking competitions: it’s a minor crowd-pleaser, a simplistic but charming little diversion that’s an absolute torture to watch on an empty stomach (seriously, get a sandwich before watching it). The plot goes from trite  set-ups to blindingly obvious twists, with a few glaring plot holes a thick serving of melodrama, not to mention cringeworthy dialogue (“Disappointment with a side-serving of lies? I know what it tastes like! Sorry, forgiveness is not on the menu.”). And yet it’s a difficult film to dislike. Its food porn is well-shot, its disposition is sunny and unpretentious, and its Pan-Asian cast does much to win the audience over: Henry Lau is charmingly natural, Aden Young and Lika Minamoto provide some pleasing supporting bickering as competitors, and more importantly, there’s Michelle. In a role integral to the plot but often peripheral to the action, she serves mostly as a reaction-shot generator, whether it be tasting dishes or emoting in silence while other people get reunited and/or reconciled. Looking so beautiful she easily upstages all the lovingly-shot noodles and fried pork (trust us, we are not being ironic), she also provides a depth of emotion that is certainly not in the script.

Long Story Short: Trite and simplistic though it may be, Final Recipe is a charming bit of food porn that benefits from an appealing cast – especially the ever-classy Michelle Yeoh. **1/2

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