Ramen Shop (Ramen teh)


Nothing bonds generations more closely than cooking together.

(2018) Drama (Strand) Takumi Saitô, Seiko Matsuda, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jeanette Aw, Mark Lee, Beatrice Chien, Shogen, Tetsuya Bessho. Directed by Eric Khoo

We all need food to sustain life, but food is so much more than that. It is the sharing of meals, the making of memories; how many of your most precious memories are wrapped around a dinner table? We connect to other people through the breaking of bread.

Masato (Saitô) works in his father’s (Ihara) popular ramen shop in the small Japanese city of Takasaki. His father isn’t a particularly affectionate man and is hypercritical of Masato’s labors although Masato has the potential to be a brilliant chef. Masato’s Chinese mother (Aw) had passed away when he was a child; he knows next to nothing of her family in Singapore (where she grew up) because of…well, he’s not really sure why.

Circumstances suddenly arise that give Masato the opportunity to visit Singapore which after reading an enthusiastic foodie’s blog he is even more anxious to do. He meets the blogger Miki (Matsuda) and she takes him on an exploration of Singaporean cuisine. He manages to track down his Uncle Wee (Lee) who receives Masato enthusiastically and brings him home to stay with his family. Masato has a bit of an ulterior motive; he wants to learn how to make bak kut teh, a pork rib soup that is served with its own special tea. It is a dish that his mom used to make for him before she passed.

Masato begins to slowly piece together the circumstances that led to his mother being estranged from her family. Only his grandmother Madame Lee (Chien) rejects Masato outright and he discovers why; Japanese soldiers had brutally murdered his grandfather, Lee’s beloved husband, during the occupation of Singapore and she had never forgiven her daughter for marrying a Japanese man. Masato however refuses to let things lie the way they are and determines to create a relationship with his grandmother in the only way he knows how – through food.

This is a deceptively light movie which Khoo uses to get us; at unexpected moments, there are powerfully emotional scenes that hit us especially hard because they are unexpected. I won’t deny that during the film’s denouement there were tears streaming down my face and I don’t often cry at movies. I’ll let you in on a little secret; most critics don’t like to feel heavy emotions and so they tend to penalize movies that force you to feel them. I’ve never understood that; part of what attracts me to movies is the powerful emotions they can raise. Sometimes having a good cry at the movies can be cathartic and a good way to cleanse the emotional toxins from our systems.

One of the more powerful and disturbing scenes was Masato visiting a war museum in which Japanese atrocities during the occupation are detailed. This may be a little bit too much for the sensitive to handle. However, one must give Khoo kudos for not backing away or sugarcoating those things and they certainly have an integral relationship with the plot.

Thoughtfully, Khoo also shows us in great deal how the various dishes are created and while he doesn’t include measurements of various ingredients, you should at least get the gist of how to make a good ramen on your own although it is not necessary to make your own ramen noodles which any good ramen shop does.

The main drawback of the film is that Khoo inserts flashbacks during the Singapore sequences of Masato’s mum and dad courting, and of his mother’s life in Singapore. They are handled a bit clumsily and sometimes create an unwelcome jarring note in the film. The transitions could have been handled more smoothly.

Lee and Matsuda are both delightful in supporting roles while most of the rest of the cast is adequate including Saitô. Khoo wisely gives us a kind of food porn, with long lingering shots on steaming broth bubbling in the bowl, falling-off-the-bone tender ribs and various iterations of ramen. It is to Khoo’s credit that he realizes the potential for cultural healing as done through food; as Masato utilizes the pork rib soup into a new type of ramen, one can feel the delicious shifting of cultural prejudices taking place. You will leave the theater hungry and craving a good bowl of ramen.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very powerful emotional moments, particularly near the end of the movie. Nicely illustrates the generational link made through food. Very instructional for those wishing to create some of these dishes at home. Guaranteed to make you crave ramen.
REASONS TO AVOID: The flashback sequences are a bit jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes here regarding the fallout of war and the long-term effects on families.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the rare occasions where the U.S. premiere takes place in Puerto Rico rather than either New York, Los Angeles or one of the major film festivals.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Back to Burgundy
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
William

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Ramen Heads


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The deliciousness that is ramen.

(2017) Documentary (FilmBuff/Gunpowder & Sky) Osamu Tomita, Shôta Iida, Kumiko Ishida, Katsuya Kobayashi, Yûki Ohnishi, Tom Takahashi, Touka, Hayama, Inoue. Directed by Koki Shigeno

Most of us in the United States know ramen as something that comes pre-packaged and can be made at home in just a few minutes. In Japan, ramen has been around for a long while as a kind of working man’s lunch that was easy and inexpensive that took off in a post-World War II Japan. In recent years there has been a dedicated sub-culture as ramen has been gentrified to a certain extent. Fanatics of the dish have their favorite chefs, each of whom have their own recipe for the broth.

The film concentrates mainly o Osamu Tomita who has been voted the best ramen chef in Japan for four years running. We get to see how obsessed he is with the quality of his ingredients, with boiling the broth for just the right amount of time to get the full range of flavors just right. Shigeno goes into loving detail – maybe a bit too lunch for non-aficionados. Certainly true ramen heads will eat this all up, literally but there may be those who find it a bit too much of a love letter.

The film covers other chefs as well although not in as great detail and things end up with a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Tomita’s restaurant, which has only ten tables, is located in a fairly less-traveled part of Japan and yet lines have already formed by 7am when the restaurant takes reservations for the day. It is necessary because the reservations generally sell out early; it is one of the hardest tables to get in all of Japan.

We then are shown the dizzying array of ramen types, many of which are virtually unknown outside of Japan. I never knew that there were so many; I was aware of tonkatsu but the others? It was to be honest, mind-blowing. I think anyone with an interest in food, especially Japanese cuisine and particularly ramen will find a lot to learn in this doc.

This is very much a man’s world; I didn’t see a single female ramen chef and even the servers were male. I also got the sense that most diehard ramen fans are also men, but this is something not really explored in the film. It should have at least have been mentioned. The fact that this is a Japanese film intended for a Japanese audience leads to them not mentioning that ramen has begun exploding over here in the States, with small ramen shops like the ones depicted here opening up all over the country.

However, there is almost a fawning feel and the voice over narration is a bit florid. Clearly the director is completely enamored of ramen which is all right  but he ascribes to it an almost mystic quality to it, equating it to the first blush of young love. It’s only noodle soup, dude.

REASONS TO GO: These chefs are truly badass! The film lets us into a world of obsession that westerners rarely get to see and are unfamiliar with.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit long and may be too detailed for those who aren’t into ramen.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Metastasized breast cancer is incurable and usually fatal; it also only gets about 8% of research funding despite causing the lion’s share of fatalities among breast cancer patients.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coming to My Senses