Reviewed by Judy Silber
Comfort food and good television are two essentials to my survival during the isolation brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Trying out new recipes, turning to old favorites, or ordering the occasional take-out with distinct flavors that we can’t replicate at home, helps break up the monotony of the quarantine existence. Movies and television series likewise help me forget. For an hour or so a night, I can get lost in someone else’s problems and in the forgetting, gain some perspective on my own.
If you can relate to this as a quarantine survival strategy then you might want to check out Chocolate, a 16-part South Korean series showing on Netflix. The series centers on the romance between Moon Cha-yeong, a talented chef, and Lee Kang, a handsome neurosurgeon from a troubled family. The two meet when they are young children and then again as adults, and eventually end up working together at a hospice for critically ill patients. From the beginning, we know where this is headed, but it’s still satisfying to watch this relationship unfold slowly, almost as if in real time.
Equally satisfying is the gorgeous cinematography with close-ups of flowers, raindrops and lush green hillsides and the shots of scenes with Moon Cha-yeong in the kitchen. She rolls sushi, stirs sauces, de-veins shrimp, pounds out dough for dumplings and peels onions with a love and dedication that reminds us that food is indeed more than nutrition. It is love and medicine for the senses. For hospice residents, Moon Cha-yeong’s dishes conjure up their precious memories, helping to heal the past and open the door for appreciating what time remains. A steaming hot bowl of kimchi soup provides the pathway for reunion between a son and the mother who abandoned him. Raspberries picked on a hillside are the last act of devotion between two women who shared a husband, and who, one of them notes, should never have been friends.
For Moon Cha-yeong, chocolate is her special food. She turns to it during moments of sadness, doubt or desperation. As a young girl, she became trapped in the basement of a collapsed Seoul department store. A woman who eventually lost her life to the disaster gave Moon Cha-yeong a chocolate and with it, the strength to hang on. Moon Cha-yeong is haunted by this experience, which is a source of both weakness and resilience.
Moon Cha-yeong is my favorite kind of female character. She’s not perfect or one-dimensional. When pushed, especially by her quirky and lazy brother — who might be my favorite character in the series — her usual composure gives way to irate anger. She’s strong and strong-willed, independent, but also romantic. Her motto we learn later in the series is to show her gratitude for surviving the department store disaster by doing as well as she can by the people around her.
And so, these were two lessons for our troubled times that I took away from Chocolate. First, food is healing, its tastes delight and its preparation can be a meaningful meditation. Second, if we truly want count our blessings during a pandemic, the best thing we can do is to think about how can we do better for one another.