‘Ramen Shop’ is a delicious tale of reconciliation

This is not your ordinary foodie flick, for it touches on a subject that is not likely to be found in a culinary film: WWII memory lodged in the mind of those who had lived through Japanese occupation, a generation of victims and witnesses of a horrific chapter in Asian history. That is the backstory. Acclaimed Singaporean director Eric Khoo offers us a slow cooked, savoury broth, using ingredients that are comforting and heartwarming to present a scenario of reconciliation.

Ramen-Shop-Still 1
A scene from Eric Khoo’s “Ramen Shop”, screened at SFFILM earlier this month, now in selective theatres. Courtesy of SFFILM.

Screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this month, Ramen Shop is now released in selective theatres. Unlike the ramen western Tampopo (1985), Khoo’s concoction is of a gentler nature, melodramatic moments that are quiet and tasteful, including a moving denouement. Ramen Shop also shows how ordinary folks live and cook, much less spectacular than what we have seen in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), but delicious in a down-to-earth way.

Young ramen chef Masato (Takumi Saitô) from Takasaki, Japan, goes on a root-searching quest to Singapore where his late mother Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw) came from. She died when Masato was still a child; the boy grew up missing his mother sorely, especially her Bak Kut Teh, Signapore’s signature Pork Bone Soup.

Masato’s father Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is a notable chef and owner of a ramen shop. To those not familiar, this is a good alternative if you’re reluctant to befriend raw fish (sushi and sashimi). Ramen are thin noodles in a long-cooked broth, usually goes with slices of braised pork, half a soft-boiled soya egg, scallions, sea weeds and other veggies. A trendy eat nowadays so the movie is timely.

Since his wife’s death, Kazuo has been too grief-stricken to notice Masato shares the pain no less; instead, Kazuo practically ignores his son.

“Sometimes I wish I were a bowl of ramen. At least that way, he’d show more interest in me,” Masato laments.

After Kazuo’s sudden death, Masato decides to go on a personal quest to search for his mother’s Singaporean roots, to find his long-lost Uncle and through him, his Grandmother who had estranged him since his birth. Taking with him faded childhood photographs, his mother’s journal written in Chinese and sweet memories of his mother’s comforting Bak Kut Teh, Masato heads to Singapore. On screen, the childhood scenes are presented with a washed-out colour, blending into the present effectively as we follow Masato walk down memory lane to re-live his early experience with his parents.

Food blogger Miki (Seiko Matsuda) whom Masato has been following online now acts as his personal guide while in Singapore. A chance encounter leads him to reconnect with his uncle, his mother’s younger brother. Played by Mark Lee, Uncle Wee is an animated and humorous character. He welcomes Masato into his home where he lives with his wife and two daughters, Masato’s new-found cousins.

More importantly, Uncle teaches Masato how to make Bak Kut Teh, literally meaning Pork Bone Tea. It’s called ‘tea’ because after finishing the ingredient-rich and savoury noodle soup, people usually drink tea as a wrap to the satisfying meal.

Upon Masato’s urging, Uncle brings him to meet Grandmother (Beatrice Chien). Realizing Masato is her late daughter’s son, Grandma rejects him outright; acknowledging a half-Japanese grandson would be too painful for her as her husband died in Japanese hands during the war.

The animosity his Grandmother holds against him shatters Masato but does not deter him. In a museum visit, he learns about Singapore’s wartime history. Eventually, he figures out a way to show his sincerity: what better way to reach out to Grandma than a delicious bowl of Japanese and Singaporean fusion, thus creating ‘Ramen Teh’ to bring to Grandma. Blending the favourites of both countries of his parental heritage, ‘Ramen Teh’ becomes the broth of reconciliation and the name of his new ramen shop when Masato returns home to Japan.

If a bowl of fusion noodle soup can melt away bitterness and long-held grievances among peoples, the world would be a better place. We have Khoo’s imaginary tale to thank if we move even one step closer to that ideal.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “‘Ramen Shop’ is a delicious tale of reconciliation”

    1. Anne,

      When you watch the movie, I’m sure you’d understand the mentality of the grandmother and not find the scenario preposterous as you’ve dealt with the topic of the Pacific War and specifically the fall of Singapore on your blog. Here’s a culinary film with that as backdrop. I think you’d appreciate the character conflict in the story.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes- some of the things that went on in those days in the Pacific are hard to even read about. (On a less serious note, your description also makes me want to find a place that serves real ramen. I’ve only had the pre-packaged stuff :))

        Like

  1. Arti,

    Just saw this film. While I enjoyed the performances of the cast, I found the movie lacking in depth and emotion. To use a cooking term, it could use a bit more spice. I also don’t quite understand mentioning Japanese WWII brutality in a movie like this. I wish the movie has gone deeper into the personal relationships of the characters. But it sure makes me want to go to Singapore for the food.

    Like

    1. Robert,

      You’re right in that this is not a deep character study drama, but one of a culinary movie genre; not only that, it’s more like a fantasy tale. So with that in mind, I’d say it’s sufficient and quite effective in bringing out the character conflict. As for the WWII memory still lodged in the grandmother’s mind, this I find realistic. I personally have come across people of the older generation like that while growing up in HK. Singapore has had a painful wartime history. it explains the reluctance of grandma in welcoming a Japanese grandson into her family. I applaud director Eric Khoo’s courage in dealing with this issue head-on but in a gentle way while offering a seemingly simple, culinary scenario of reconciliation. Khoo has done other foodie films and this time choosing such a backdrop with ramen is quite ingenious I think. I personally find it very moving.

      Thanks for your two pebbles. That’s what Ripples is all about.

      Like

    1. marmeladegypsy,

      It has played in film festivals, now only in selective theatres. You might find it in a larger city, where you can seek out ramen shops too. These fresh made noodles (ramen) and the soup are totally different things from the packaged ones. You must try them.

      Like

  2. Believe it or not, this made me hungry for ramen, which I’ve only had a couple of times. I went looking, and discovered that there’s a Jinya Ramen Bar only a couple of miles away from me. They have locations in Calgary and Toronto, too — any chance you’ve eaten there? The menu looks wonderful.

    I’m going out of town this weekend, but next week I’m going to give it a try. I’d love to see the film, too, but that’s going to be harder. Maybe it will come around.

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for suggesting a ramen shop right in my city! I will definitely check it out. The pictures in the menu show that the place is quite authentic. Let’s exchange notes after we’ve tried our respective restaurant. Have a good trip!

      Like

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