Film Review: Flavor of Happiness

BOTTOM LINE: Japanese film on Chinese cooking is light refreshment.

Pusan International Film Festival
Asian Film Market

"Good food is not about showing off expensive ingredients or fancy techniques," says the heroine of "Flavor of Happiness." The same can be said about "Flavor," a film about Chinese cuisine but without sumptuous imperial banquets like "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" or a dramatic cooking competition as the climax. Like the humble, family dishes it celebrates, story, style and human relationships are simple and gentle on the palate.

In terms of entertainment level, the film is not in the same league as "Tampopo" or even the Korean "Le Grand Chef." One can't expect the kind of rapturous response those films got overseas. However, it is not a bad choice for food-themed or family-centered festivals, and good for TV.

"Flavor" follows the classic recipe of the mentor-apprentice relationship -- between a Chinese chef and a single mother that blossoms into a surrogate father-daughter bond. Young widow Takako (Miki Nakatani) moves to Kanazawa from Tokyo with daughter Noriko and winds up an apprentice to Chinese chef Wang (Tatsuya Fuji) after he suffered a stroke and no longer can run his diner Little Shanghai.

When Noriko is taken away by social workers, Wang helps Takako prove her credentials by letting her cook for the engagement dinner of his benefactor's son. The dinner brings a cozy final touch to the various father-daughter relationships developed throughout by focusing on the bittersweet reactions of the father-in-law giving away the bride-to-be.

Set mostly in a serene seaside location in Kanazawa, an ancient city hailed as Kyoto of the North, the film captures the region's august mountainous landscapes and the reserved yet decent values of the locals.

The narrative unfolds in a measured rhythm, with no big surprises or revelations. Yet Nakatani and Fuji are given time to warm to their roles. The highlight is a trip to Wang's birthplace Shaoxing, where picturesque shots of winding canals and willow-lined bridges are shamelessly touristy, but for a Japanese audience as soothing as a NHK travelogue.

When rating a food-themed film, the proof of the pie is in the eating. There are plenty of cooking scenes and glossy shots of dishes, but like American tacos, they have been adapted for Japanese taste.

Cast: Miki Nakatani, Tatsuya Fuji, Kei Tanaka, Kaoru Yachigusa.
Screenwriter-director: Mitsuhiro Mihara.
Producers: Kazushi Miki, Toshiya Nomura.
Director of photography: Akiko Ashizawa.
Production designer: Chie Matsumoto.
Music: Goro Yasukawa.
Editor: Ryuji Miyajima.
Sales: Toei Co.
No rating, 118 minutes.
production: Toei Co./Flavor of Happiness Film Partners.