(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