The Wandering Chef is the kind of left-field, ethereal pleasure only found at film festivals: a documentary on a chef who roams the country, monk-like in his devotion to the search for rare ingredients. Less an exhibition of culinary pyrotechnics, this is more an expression of food as an experience, rooted in culture and tradition.
The subject, Im Jiho, is also a fascinating and compelling individual. Implicit in his solitary journeys is a rejection of modern society and contentment with loneliness unusual in Korea’s collective culture; yet he is also emotionally vulnerable and generous-hearted. The film transports him from rural Korea to international cooking shows and back again, but you get the sense Im is most in his element engaging in earthy banter with other Koreans – usually elderly – on folk remedies. One of the film’s pleasures is watching him get excited about an obscure wild herb and list its medicinal properties, and the scene in which he debates whether moss can or cannot be eaten is a highlight. Im’s vocation draws him close to forgotten, timeless lifestyles: the weather-beaten haenyeo (female divers) of Jeju, and a grandfather hauling stones on his back to a mountainside home. This is as much an ode to Korea’s wild landscapes, with casually stunning cinematography to match, as it is a cooking documentary.
One would have been perfectly happy for The Wandering Chef to be a visual encyclopedia on Korean cuisine and ingredients. However, first-time director Hye Ryeong Park, who filmed the documentary over the span of several years, chooses to push the material in a more narrative direction. The film gravitates increasingly towards Im’s friendship with an elderly lady and her husband, treating it as a quasi-redemptive arc. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it is deeply touching, and adds depth to Im as a character. It’s just that everything else comes to feel increasingly peripheral, and out of place structurally.
While not quite the out-and-out masterpiece it had the potential to be, The Wandering Chef is still a terrific heart-warmer, captivating in its detail, and a reminder that all the world’s great cuisines are the accumulation of informal knowledge and folk tradition.