Do you find ramen irresistible? Love Singapore hawker halls? Can’t get enough of Anthony Bourdain or Chef’s Table? Reread Proust with delight? Ramen Shop has you covered! Here is the taste of food as memory, family, connection, identity… and love.
While Tampopo and Jiro Dreams of Sushi immediately come to mind, this film is more like Sweet Bean and The Lunchbox in its ambitions and tone. Its economic storytelling wastes little time setting the stage for its main objective: a hero’s journey in search of a recipe and family. This quest takes Masato (Takumi Saito) from his family-run, small town ramen shop in Japan to the cosmopolitan city-state of Singapore.
Masato’s mother, Mei Lian (Beatrice Chien), long deceased, was a Singapore Chinese who married his father, Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a Japanese keiseki chef based there during the heady days of Japan’s economic dominance. Her death cast a deep shadow on both Masato and his father, though they operate a successful ramen shop with Akio (Tetsuya Bessho), Kazuo’s brother.
The film’s origins in the desire to highlight the 50th anniversary of relations between Singapore and the post war democratic nation of Japan sometimes peek out of the plot (several tourist agencies and government bodies show up in the end credits). And a case could be made for the story being a metaphor for the reconciliation of these two nations after the brutality of WWII. (A similar theme emerged in the Kon Ichikawa’s 1956 film The Burmese Harp.) But the film doesn’t get mired here, and zeros in on the ramifications of war on the families of the survivors, and realistically grapples with loss and grief and anger and forgiveness. A recurring theme is compassion, as the Japanese Buddhist Kannon figure (Chinese: Guanyin; Tibetan: Avalokiteshvara) appears and is noted in several ways.
It’s a delight to see the markets and hawker halls of Singapore, and the kitchen scenes—in homes and restaurants—are inspiring. The title is not quite right though—the recipe Masato seeks is for the great Singapore noodle soup called bak kut teh, like ramen, also a masterpiece of rich taste from humble ingredients meant to feed working people on the run—but hey, why not?
Two minor gripes: the film has a muted color palette which seems out of place here (though there’s a risk of sliding down the slope towards food porn, don’t you love it when food on camera is vibrant?), and for some reason they chose the melody of that early 1960s instrumental “Telstar” as the theme for the score, an earworm that will take a few bowls of great noodle soup to recover from (fortunately there’s plenty of that in our arena!). Be warned, though: you will definitely want to be within walking distance of a good Asian restaurant right after watching this one!
Ramen Shop is opening in theaters in April and May, 2019. Look here for theaters and dates.
Directed by Eric Khoo
In English, and Japanese, Mandarin, and Cantonese, with English subtitles
Singapore/Japan/France, 90 min.
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He has both owned as well as consulted for restaurants and opened a tea shop. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of several films including Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. Among his other films as director and/or producer are The Simple Life, On the Luce, Rock Soup, Milarepa, and Touching Peace.
He is currently executive director of the nonprofit Tea Arts Institute and Buddhist Film Foundation and presenting The 2017 Buddhist Film Festival in Los Angeles and San Rafael this summer. The complete schedules are here.
A WORD FROM THE ACTORS
What was your impression when you first read the script?
TAKUMI SAITO (Masato): “I read the script without knowing the history of Bak Kut Teh. I didn’t know the history of Ramen either. After I read the script, I found that these signature dishes from the two countries have a history, both developed as a comfort food for the blue-collars. It’s a story that connects those local foods in a real sense. And that connection extends to connecting Japan and Singapore. Masato appears as a symbol of such connection. I thought the story was very interesting and deep as there was a meaning behind every element of it.”
How did you like working with Eric Khoo?
SEIKO MATSUDA (Miki): “It is needless to say that he is a great director. As a person, he is just incredible. He constantly talked to us, cared about us, and asked us if we were okay. We were truly thankful for his meticulous attention to us. During the shoot, he often came up with impromptu ideas. These were all practical that everyone could agree. It was a learning experience. I could adopt myself to his idea naturally and didn’t worry about it at all. It was wonderful. He is a great director.”
What pleased you most while working on this film?
TSUYOSHI IHARA (Kazuo): “At first I was concerned that the story might end up being a shallow food movie, then I saw the diligent effort put in by the team to portray family connections and human relationships through food in great detail. When I arrived on set, I could see the cast were really bringing out the emotional part of this human drama.”
What is fascinating about this movie?
TETSUYA BESSHO (Akio)” “I can say eating is the most important source of life. And this movie digs into the core of eating. As if it shows a way of Japanese culture, like all the ingredients are crammed in a Donburi or Ramen bowl. The theme is Ramen, our soul food which is getting very popular all over the world. Though Ramen is a symbol of Japan, it also contains full of Asian essences. This movie especially shows that aspect. It just not only entertains us but also shows humans behind the food culture. That can be the dishes that recall your mother, family or hometown. That is the fascination of this movie.”