‘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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‘Shirkers’ Could Well Kick Off Another #Movement

Writer-director Sandi Tan’s bio reads like an anime heroine. Born in Singapore, where chewing gum is outlawed and family expectations confining, teenager Sandi led a subversive life immersed in the rad, forbidden culture of Singapore. At the prodigious age of 14, she wrote for “Big O”, a magazine of Singapore’s underground rock scene. At 16, she started her own zine “The Exploding Cat” with best friend Jasmine Ng. It attracted a cult following; they received fan letters from New York, London, Paris, Jerusalem, even from prisons. But that’s not the exciting part. At the ripe old age of 19, Sandi made the first indie road movie of Singapore, with a few devoted cinephiles and curious onlookers.

Sandi Tan in Shirkers

It all began when an enigmatic American expat called Georges Cardona arriving in Singapore and started a film class attended by mostly 18 and 19 year-old girls. Sandi started Georges’ class with great aspirations. He took her and a few other gals under his wings, went on night drives after class and introduced them to the French New Wave.

In the summer of 1992, energized by youthful zeal, Sandi made a movie called “Shirkers” with people from her filmmaking class, a remarkable feat. She wrote the script and played the main role, a 16 years-old assassin called “S”. Her best friend Jasmine was editor; another friend Sophie Siddique was producer, and Georges, the director. Sophie as executive producer wrote a letter to Kodak and received all film supplies free. How they rounded up supporting actors and extras, location scouts, sound and techs was an endeavour only youthful verve would attempt.

After the completion of the filming, Sandi and her friends left Singapore for University; she went to England, Jasmine to New York, and Sophie to L.A. Georges remained in Singapore. And that was when the girls lost contact with him. None of them had seen any of the footage, and Jasmine had all the intention to return after school term to do editing work. Georges had disappeared without a trace and taken with him all the 16mm reels of their “Shirkers” film. A large chunk of the girls’ life had gone missing, especially Sandi’s, who had put her heart and soul into the venture, and who, on her own, had gone on a road trip in America with Georges, by then her best friend, a man twice her age with a wife and kid.

With Georges’s mysterious exit, the filmmaking dream of the clan had all but vanished into thin air. After finishing university in England, Sandi went back to Singapore and wrote for Singapore’s Straits Times as a film critic, apparently a dream detoured. Yet life went on. A few years later she proceeded to NYC for film school at Columbia University and later settled in the U.S. She had since made a couple of short films and written a novel, The Black Isle (Hachette USA), which was well received. But at the back of her mind, she could not forget “Shirkers”. Then, twenty-five years later, that fateful day arrived.

Without giving out spoilers, somehow events led to the recovery of the complete “Shirkers” in its original condition in 70 canisters of 16mm film, together with storyboards, scripts, mementos and props used in the production. An amazing turn.

The present documentary is not only about the creative process in filmmaking by a group of young enthusiasts, but also a chronicle of a period in Singapore’s social and cinematic history. What’s more, Sandi Tan’s feature could well kick off something like the #MeToo Movement, not about sexual advantage taken by the powerful, but about adults in mentoring positions toying with the hopes and dreams of their protégé, about the betrayal of trust and the robbing of rightful ownership of creative endeavours. But of course, Georges could well be just a deeply disturbed soul shirking from real life challenges and responsibilities.

Shirkers the documentary is a cinematic collage of 16mm film, digital, Super 8, slides, animations, hand-drawn illustrations and writing, a visual cacophony of creative expressions. Cinematographer Iris Ng (The Apology, Stories We Tell) has done a realistic capture of old friends reuniting with the Jasmine and Sophie interviews plus those of other personnel associated with the original production. Jasmine is now a filmmaker and Sophie faculty of Film at Vassar.

The editing in bridging the 25-year-gap is seamless, the mood personal and quirky. Notable also are the sound mixing and the original score. Shirkers is more than just a chronicle of a mysterious lost-and-found, but a narrative that transcends grievances to situate personal experience in a larger social and cultural context.

Shirkers premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in January where Sandi Tan won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. The film was later acquired by Netflix and released October 26 via the streaming service.

Latest news is that Shirkers is among the 166 entries for Best Documentary Feature in the coming Oscars. Nominations for the short-list will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Academy Awards show will be broadcast live on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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Update Nov. 16: Shirkers has just been nominated for Best Documentary Independent Spirit Award.