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.
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