The Strength of Food

Masaharu Take’s 2009 film Café Seoul explores the importance of family and the impact of food on people. Centering on a surrogate family in the middle of Korea, four people must support each other as they struggle to preserve a landmark of tradition and family. Food plays a key role in the film, bringing people together, strengthening individuals, and reviving childhood memories.

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The Song brothers at a young age enjoy narunji, happily sharing with each other.

The film follows a writer, Jun, who travels to Korea with his camera looking for a story. Armed with little English, he explores Seoul and crashes into the reserved Sang-Woo, the owner of a small traditional confectionary shop called Morandang. Eager to make a friend in the city of strangers, Jun follows Sang-Woo to his shop and incessantly attempts to kindle a friendship. Finally, Jun wins over Sang-Woo by identifying their similar family backgrounds.

Difficult times come into the picture with the yakuza pushing to destroy the shop for reality purposes. After breaking Sang-Woo’s arm, rendering him unable to cook, Jun draws upon the aid of Sang-Hyuk, Sang-Woo’s musician brother who abandoned his family to follow his dreams. Sang-Woo trains Sang-Hyuk with the support of Jun and a kindly old shop patroness.

Remembering the shop in its glory days, the yakuza give the brothers one month to restore the shop to its prime. United as a surrogate family, the two brothers, Jun, and the patroness strive to increase the quality of the food and spread the word across the city to bring in more customers.

The extra publicity brings in a legal threat from another shop called Morandang, demanding they change the shop’s name. Upon visiting the other Morandang, they find a fancy Western style pastry shop run by Sang-Jin, the third of their brothers. The mafia boss demands a competition to determine which Morandang is superior, though the backing of the yakuza behind Sang-Jin’s Morandang makes the situation look bleak.

On the day of the competition, Sang-Hyuk and Sang-Jin provide the boss with dramatically different foods for each dish. While Sang-Jin’s dishes possess an exotic Western nature with great visual aesthetic, Sang-Hyuk’s dishes exude a homey and simple quality, both in taste and look. The boss snubs each of Sang-Hyuk’s dishes as he jubilantly consumes Sang-Jin’s. For the final dish, Sang-Hyuk presents nurunji, a modest fried dish. As the boss bites into the treat, fond childhood memories of eating nurunji flood over him. Overcome with emotion, the boss happily declares Sang-Hyuk the winner and leaves with a newfound joy.

Take demonstrates the power of food by centering the broken Sang family in the food industry. After the three went their separate ways, each pursuing their own dream, Sang-Woo remained at Morandang living in the dream of his memories. The very food he crafted brought together friends to restore his dream of the past. Sang-Hyuk returned to the shop to help make food in the place of his injured brother. Baking food grew the lost bond between the brothers and boosted Sang-Hyuk’s low confidence. Finally, food broke down the hardened yakuza boss to a blissful boy, granting the brothers the freedom to continue running the shop of their father. 

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