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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Sushi: The Global Catch


The tasty simplicity of sushi.

The tasty simplicity of sushi.

(2012) Documentary (Lorber) Mamoru Sugiyama, Mike Sutton, Alistair Douglas, Casson Trenor, Hagen Stehr, Tyson Cole, Yasuhara Ida, Kazuo Nazaki, Makoto Nozue, Hiroyasu Itoh, Barbara Block. Directed by Mark Hall

Films For Foodies

It really wasn’t that long ago that I couldn’t understand the appeal behind sushi. Raw fish? White rice? Yeccch. I resisted eating the stuff for a very long time. Then, at a party where that was all that was being served food-wise and I was desperately hungry, I finally broke down and tried it. I loved it. I became an instant sushi freak and have been for decades now.

Sushi started life as a cheap Japanese street food and has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry. It has become one of the most popular dishes in the world, with places like China and Brazil beginning to discover it. It is insanely popular in Australia and even Europe has embraced the fish and rice delicacy.

In Japan, sushi chefs undergo rigorous training, a seven year process that requires two years alone to learn to cook the rice properly. High end knife stores in Japan supply the highly specialized sushi knives which are required to be razor sharp. Here in the United States sushi has popped up all over the country, even in the landlocked Midwest. The demand for sushi chefs continues to grow almost daily.

Demand for sushi has outstripped supply and entire species of fish are beginning to wobble dangerously towards extinction, primarily the bluefin tuna which is a highly prized species. While some limits have been enacted on fishing the species, the fact that a single bluefin can bring as much as $400,000 at market in Japan means that fishermen aren’t too choosy about following these laws.

This documentary tackles both sides of the subject, with a brief history of sushi and a look at how sushi restaurants operate in Japan, showing sushi chefs making an early morning visit to the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo; from there it moves on to the sustainability issue, how spiking demand for sushi has led to overfishing and overpricing of fish.

The first part of the movie can be a bit dry; the second half a little bit preachy. Both sides have a lot going for them, from the fascinating look at sushi preparation, and how it moved from street food to global phenomenon. This part of the film may indeed give you an appetite for sushi but the second half might well kill it. Hall isn’t able to integrate the two portions of the movie well, despite the smooth transition. Although both sections are interesting and important on their own, for some reason they are jarring when brought together. It’s like one half is saying “sushi has an honorable tradition” and the second half is “sushi has caused a great evil;” it’s sort of schizophrenic.

We do visit with the owners of Tataki, a San Francisco sushi restaurant that uses product from sustainable fisheries exclusively (which a number of other West Coast restaurants have begun to do). We also talk to scientists and oceanographers who warn that the ecosystem of the ocean has already been thrown out of kilter and reiterating grim statistics from other documentaries concerned with overfishing that  by 2048 the supply of seafood will be exhausted at current rates, a catastrophic eventuality that could lead to starvation as many cultures, particularly in Asia, rely on the sea as a main source of food.

The message of the film is not to stop eating sushi but to eat it responsibly. Make sure that your favorite purveyor of the dish gets their supply of fish from sustainable sources; if they don’t, urge them to do so. Of course, not all sushi restaurateurs know for certain if their sources are sustainable; if not, urge them to find out.

It is not too late to reverse the course of overfishing and responsible politicians and fishermen are already taking great steps to do so. Sushi lovers can also do their part by being aware of what they are eating and where it came from. While the movie here makes that important point, some may find that it uses a sledgehammer to make it when a gentle nudge would have done.

WHY RENT THIS: Draws attention to overfishing and the serious peril that bluefin tuna are in. Some nifty info about sushi chefs and restaurants.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The two thrusts of the film don’t blend well together. A little bit preachy.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some fish blood and guts.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an image gallery included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5,757 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Streaming only; DVD rental coming soon), iTunes, Amazon
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Line
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Vacation