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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Ilo Ilo


Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!