Tradition Brings Back the Family in Café Seoul

“Food is the sense of art,” or rather, “eating is the art of senses.” Despite this slight mistranslation, the message gets across. Takemasa Haru’s Café Seoul (2009) is about a Japanese writer Jun who visits Korea to find a topic to write. He stumbles upon Morandang , a traditional confectionary shop which resonates with his own memories of family. Jun establishes a strong friendship despite the language barrier with Sang-Woo and Sang-Hyuk, who run the shop, and helps them prevent it from closing down. The story narrates how food is a bridge through which memories can unite create families and revive traditional values.

By relating his own family memories to Sang-Woo’s family’s photos, Jun forms a family-like friendship with Sang-Woo. At first, Sang-Woo tries to avoid Jun, who appears to be rather nosy.  As Madam Young explains his family’s history, the scene transitions through a close-up of lifelike photos to his past, without color for a nostalgic effect. They illustrate a close-knit family, but end with Sang-Woo standing alone in the kitchen. As we resurface to the present, the kitchen background barely changes, implying that its traditional values still live on. The next day, Jun points to people in the family photo and himself and Sang-Woo to explain how their families are alike. The camera, however, focuses on their faces instead of the photo to highlight their expressions. Initially Sang-Woo looks saddened, as if he is internally stressed with memories, but eventually he understands Jun’s message and a smile appears on his face. This manner of communication and body language’s simplicity complements the traditional shop setting despite growing modernization. Both shops symbolize their family and upbringing, and through this they are able to understand each other.

Jun points to the people in the family photo to show how he and Sang-Woo are alike. Sang-Woo understands - not necessarily by words but by expression.

The final contest between brothers unifies their family and reminds them of the tradition Morandang has always stood for. Each brother’s choice of dishes represents their values: Sang-Hyuk’s cooking and traditional presentation represent his love for simple, homely things, while Sang-Jin’s elaborate pastries signify his modern, westernized tastes. However, Sang-Hyuk’s first two dishes do not reach the judge, whose face is rather disdainful and judgmental as he stares back at him. He further mocks him by outwardly expressing his delight at the European-style food. Throughout this scene, the camera flips back and forth between the judge and everyone else (with an occasional smug smile on Sang-Jin’s face, and growing apprehension from Jun, Sang-Woo, and Madam Young). This builds for the audience’s disappointment, as the outcome seems obvious. However, the last dish, nurunji, surprises everyone. It is a simple Korean food which holds deep memories in the family and suggests the simplicity of tradition. Its nostalgic effect is visually and audibly shown by the silence in the sprinkling of snow-like sugar, and the judge’s flashback to his own childhood where their grandfather joyfully serves him the same thing. The vivid first-person perspective reveals the fondness of this memory. These memories, drawn out by the surrounding family photos cause him to almost cry. As the three brothers try the nurunji, interspersed flashbacks again show them as children, together eating nurunji in the same way as the present. In this simple act, they are reunited as family and reminded that Morandang holds a special place in their hearts.

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