Review: ‘The Wandering Chef’

Hot Docs 2019

5 mins read

The Wandering Chef
(South Korea, 90 min.)
Dir. Hye-Ryeong Park
Programme: World Showcase (World Premiere)

Korean celebrity chef Jiho Im has wandered around all his life. It started when he was twelve and ran away from home to wander the country and encounter its people. He’s been wandering ever since. “I wondered around a lot. People criticized me for not being able to stay in one place for long. No one knew I was searching for something. Only I knew.”

In a heart-warming ode to family and the healing power of food, director Hye-Ryeong Park, in The Wandering Chef, takes us on a journey with chef Jiho as he travels the Korean peninsula in search of unique ingredients and slowly reveals what he went searching for all those years ago.

Chef Jiho began his search when he discovered that the mother that raised him was not biological. He went on a search for his mother and discovered food during his travels. Food became a way for him to channel his feelings; at some point in the film he wonders, “could the longing be in my food?” Chef Jiho’s biological mother ran away from his father while she was pregnant with him and sent him back to his father when he was three years old. On her return home, she died in a car accident. Chef Jiho only found that out when he was 17. When he turned 22, the mother that raised him passed away. Since then, Jiho has wandered, cooked and longed for the mother figure.

The film, like Jiho, wanders too. As chef Jiho travels the peninsula, and treks the mountains in search of ingredients, we trek too. The camera walks with him, follows him and listens to him. He tells us of his past, as he picks herbs and other local ingredients while mentioning the medicinal and nutritional value they carry. Along the way, Chef Jiho encounters several people who he stops to help, have a conversation, and eventually cooks for them.

One day, he meets an old woman picking herbs from the land around her house in the mountains. He helps her pick the herbs, they converse and laugh before heading back to her home where he meets her quiet husband. Chef Jiho decides to cook them dinner, and when he leaves, promises to return. He keeps his promise, and from then on, the film transforms into his wandering scenes looking for ingredients interspersed with his visits to the old couple, where he cooks for them and develops a close relationship to the woman who becomes a maternal figure: his third mother.

The Wandering Chef is mostly observational; Park keeps himself out of the story, allowing his camera and presence to fade into the background. As we wonder with Chef Jiho and visit the elderly couple with him, we learn about his relationship to both his mothers, and are alongside him as he goes through the cathartic experience of coming to terms with the past.

By relying on a loose structure for the film, and choosing to wander with Chefi Jiho, Park removes the concept of time. We are unaware of how much time has passed between each visit, and we are unaware of how many years Park has been filming. Through this removal, Park manages to follow Jiho on a personal journey where time has no significance, and where importance is not given to the details, but rather to the emotional, the ephemeral and the experiential. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed: what matters is his healing through food, cooking and through his meeting of a mother figure.

Towards the end of the film, his third mother passes away. Yet again, Chef Jiho mourns and wanders. He decides to go on a search to collect ingredients from all over the country and cook with them to pay tribute to his three mothers. He conceives of 108 different dishes, cooks them in 24 hours, and does so in the empty kitchen of his third mother.

The Wandering Chef screens:
-Wed, May 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Hart House
-Thurs, May 2 at 3:00 p.m. at Cineplex Scotiabank
-Fri, May 3 at 9:30 p.m. at Isabel Bader

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

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