'Ramen Shop' ('Ramen Teh'): Film Review | Berlin 2018
Takumi Saito plays a young Japanese chef looking for his roots in Singapore and pop star Seiko Matsuda is his food muse in Eric Khoo's reunion drama.
Singapore's best-known director, Eric Khoo (My Magic, Tatsumi), was tapped to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations between his country and Japan, and what better way to bring nations together than over a steaming plate of delicious chow? In his mouth-watering, sentiment-laden family film Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh), a young Japanese chef visits Singapore in search of his mother's roots and ends up fusing the best of two cuisines. It marks Khoo's second trot to Berlin's Culinary Cinema sidebar after his 2015 Wanton Mee. The MK2 release should be awarded stars by VOD viewers in particular.
Though this co-production from Singapore, Japan and France wanders dangerously close to becoming a sentimental Asian pudding at times, it is saved by its underlying theme of forgiveness and reconciliation between long-estranged family members, for whom the cruel memory of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Singapore during World War II is still alive. When the protagonist pays a visit to a war museum, Japanese atrocities are not glossed over. Yet they seem to come as a shocking revelation to a member of his 30-something generation.
The most difficult thing for foreign audiences to digest in Ramen Shop is the opening scenes, which whiz by in multiple languages — Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese — that are supposed to provide clues to the story and its location. It's daunting not to know for sure in what country the action is taking place as the characters are introduced in a confusing opener.
After some lost screen time, things begin to clear up. Masato, played by actor-director Takumi Saito of 13 Assassins and Manhunt (who incidentally won last year's Asian New Talent Award for directing Blank 13), is a young Japanese chef visiting Singapore to explore its cuisine and at the same time learn more about his Singaporean mother. Saito's intelligent presence deepens the story considerably. Self-possessed but never aloof in his quest, his warmth and curiosity lead the story into safer waters.
He's puzzled why he has never met his grandmother or other relatives living in Singapore. After an emotional recognition scene with his maternal uncle (a frank, sharply amusing Mark Lee), he moves in with the family and gets some cooking lessons. His first meeting with his pig-headed grandma (Beatrice Chien) is a disaster — she refuses to acknowledge his existence. But he doesn't give up trying to get through to her with food, the best way to granny's heart.
Apart from the beginning, the story is told skillfully through flashbacks to the courtship of Masato's parents and his own broken home. Family reconciliation is interwoven with his exploration of local delicacies in his uncle's steaming restaurant, and in outings with food blogger Miki, who is played with natural charm by Japanese pop idol Seiko Matsuda. She guides him and the audience through some very exotic dishes, like the ginger pork loins called "bak kut teh."
Masato proves his valor, and gives the film a happy ending, by inventing a combo of iconic Japanese ramen noodles and Singapore's signature bak kut teh. (The recipe is thoughtfully provided in the press book, along with the news that the production company hired chef Keisuke Takeda to create the dish.)
Production companies: Wild Orange Artists, Zhao Wei Films, Comme des Cinemas, Version Originale
Cast: Takumi Saito, Jeanette Aw, Mark Lee, Beatrice Chien, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Tetsuyo Bessho, Seiko Matsuda
Director: Eric Khoo
Screenwriters: Tan Fong Cheng, Wong Kim Hoh
Producers: Yutaka Tachibana, Tan Fong Cheng, Masa Sawada, Eric Le Bot, Huang Junxiang
Director of photography: Brian Gothong Tan
Costume designer: Meredith Lee Wein Lin
Editor: Natalie Soh
Music: Kevin Mathews
Casting director: Felicia Tan
World sales: MK2 Films
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Culinary Cinema)