I don't know how I got it into my head that Kim Ui-seok's A Great Chinese Restaurant (which I'd initially seen referred to as The Great Chef: Peking Restaurant) was a sequel to Chong Yun-su's Le Gran Chef, one of the funniest Korean comedies I've ever seen. The title is similar but not truly derivative. The movie itself was actually made eight years earlier than the one I thought it followed. Be that as it may, I was pretty excited to see the imagined followup. What I saw instead was a truly endearing little indie picture about a failing Chinese restaurant that finds a second life shortly after its owner (the wonderful Shin Goo) has a stroke thereby forcing the staff to draw upon its own resources to drum up business again.
The flailing restaurant's recovery is largely due to the arrival of Yang Han-kook (Kim Seok-hun), the son of the owner's childhood friend, a friend who disappeared many years ago after borrowing a lot of money and a butcher knife. Yang wants to repay his father's debt -- not with money but with the discovery of an irresistibly tasting recipe for a spicy noodle dish. If he can do this, he'll fulfill his father's childhood pact with the owner to establish a little eatery that qualifies as the best Chinese restaurant in town. With gently naturalistic performances from quite a few actors early in their careers -- Jeong Jun as the klutzy prep cook, Myeong Se-bin as the owner's independent daughter, A Great Chinese Restaurant is, in reality, the perfect companion piece to Le Gran Chef, because it revisits the same themes -- the comedy of competition, the poignancy of familial devotion, even the cooperative nature of the kitchen -- on a smaller scale. This is a chamber movie for foodies, a sentimental dramedy about pursuing the impossible, a feel-good flick about male bonding and the importance of not taking shortcuts.
The only things that keep this film from being a mini-masterpiece are the grating soundtrack and the unappetizing closeups of the various dishes. This film won't make you crave Chinese food. Why should it? It's Korean!