Food is sustenance, food is pleasure and, as Eric Khoo’s nostalgia-drenched “Ramen Shop” reminds us, food is memory.
The last is not often seen in Japanese foodie movies, which tend to focus on the hero’s arduous journey to mastery of a culinary art.
So when the film, which premiered at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, began with an emotionally distant father (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and dutiful adult son (Takumi Saito) making ramen together at the former’s shop, I imagined yet another fraught drama about the older generation teaching the younger how to make the perfect bowl of noodles.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||89 mins.|
|Language||Japanese, English, Mandarin|
But Khoo goes in another, culture-crossing direction, while staying grounded, for better and worse, in family drama formulas. The result is a few cringe-inducing moments, but also gut punches that land hard, though you see them coming from a mile away.
And in contrast to Japanese directors who treat every domestic squabble as an occasion for overblown theatricality, Khoo takes a relatively light-footed approach. People smile a lot in this movie — and not only when they are digging into scrumptious Singaporean street food.
Early on the father dies and the son, Masato, decides to trace the past of his parents, especially his Singaporean mother (Jeanette Aw), now long deceased. Perusing his father’s effects, including a letter from an Uncle Wee and his mother’s journal, written in incomprehensible Mandarin, Masato realizes there is much he doesn’t know. Hoping to find out more, he books a flight to Singapore.
There he meets Miki (Seiko Matsuda), a food blogger of his online acquaintance, who introduces him to the delights of Singaporean cuisine. Fluent in Mandarin, she also translates his mom’s journal, including recipes that she left especially for him. Masato looks up Uncle Wee (Mark Lee), a cook who holds the key to family secrets, such as the antipathy of Masato’s Singaporean grandmother (Beatrice Chien) to him and his mom. Masato also asks him to reveal the mysteries of pork rib soup, one of his mother’s favorites. Wee quickly agrees.
Among the film’s oddities is Masato’s ignorance of Mandarin, though he lived in Singapore until age 10 and had a Mandarin-fluent mother. Also, the timeline doesn’t quite add up. Masato’s Singaporean grandfather, we learn, died during the war, but his mom, from the photographic evidence, was a youngish baby boomer. Nonetheless, the war, particularly the brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore, plays an important role in the story — and so is dragged in, actuarial realities be damned.
Playing Masato, Saito seems to be enjoying himself more than the usual Japanese actor in an exotic setting. One reason: His real-life father was a ramen chef and he consequently knows his way around a kitchen.
But the film’s true find is Lee as Uncle Wee. Speaking a flavorsome Singapore English, he is effortlessly funny. Showing Masato how to make pork rib soup, he gets laughs without cracking a single obvious joke. Partly it’s his sly, quicksilver delivery and partly it’s his down-to-earth approach to the job. Unlike the Japanese movie chefs who cook as a semi-religious ritual — Zen and the art of omelet flipping — Wee demystifies his work while making his creations look delicious.
Or maybe that was just me seeing this movie, with its artfully photographed food porn, a little too close to lunchtime?