Bittersweet and True: Chef of South Polar

I’m sorry, Before Sunset.  I have loved you for so long, but it is now time to step down as my all-time favorite movie.
The Chef of the South Pole (南極料理人, 2009) is my new benchmark.

The movies I love are usually the ones I feel I can never describe fully.  Like nothing I say can accurately express how good and real and delicate it is.  Inception, for example, is a good movie, but also easy to take apart.  You can dissect it — cinematography, special effects, plot, acting.

For South Pole Chef….it isn’t even like a movie for me anymore; it just feels like life.  It feels like a peek into a strong and fun friendship.  It’s the only movie in a long time that’s kept me happily engaged throughout the entire length of it.

But, I’ll talk about it anyway.  Even if I really just enjoy soaking the film in.

The Chef of the South Pole

First unfair advantage: It revolves around meals.  And employs many gorgeous shots of food – in preparation and consumption.  Fried lobster! Ramen! Noodle-making! Sashimi! Inch-thick steak!  I love seeing Mr. Nakishima’s focused artisanship and inherent joy and apprehension while he prepares his food and watches his colleagues stuff their faces!  And, as in almost all South Korean and Japanese films involving meals, the Dome Fuji guests all eat with gusto!  I love how South Korean and Japanese films embrace and celebrate passion for eating, in a way that is so enjoyable but, sadly, typically frowned upon by Western etiquette.

Okay, sorry about gushing about the food part of it.

It’s a really beautiful story.  I don’t want to talk about the plot points; I just want to describe what I loved about it.

It’s…delicate.  Slice-of-life.  Like little cut-outs in actual human days, like my two other favorites – Before Sunset and Soup Opera.  You just feel the… the meat of their friendship.  In the oddball funny moments where they’re in the bathroom all together and tease the person pooping, to the subtle sadness and tension under the surface, when they each get lonely in their own way.   But, despite the real sadness in the kind of life the characters had to go through in the Antarctic, I love how the program was never melodramatic.  It was just quiet and funny and honest.

And, yes, I will go through the technical bits.  It’s a stunning movie.  I love the apt and accurate cinematography – the quiet shots of the Station before the movie ends; the sweeping shots of the tundra, especially when they were getting water; the establishing shots of the darkness and harsh windy coldness.  Aaagh.  Agh. So beautiful.

And the music! I love the quirky tune during the fun parts; the solemn silence during the awkward realizations of rejection, and how the music ends right before punctuating events like one of the characters tripping as he runs through the snow and when Mr. Nakishima finishes a dish during Winter Solstice dinner.

There are no in-your-face life lessons; no grand realizations or enlightenment; just life.  A celebration of food, friendship and hopeful, steady human fortitude.


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