There’s a scrumptious niche of cinema-orbiting food, food culture and cultural history comprising classics and masterworks: Tampopo, Big Night, Eat Drink Man Woman, Babette’s Feast. Add to that number Ramen Shop, Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo’s latest, a piece so gentle and breezy that viewers may be fooled into thinking it weightless.
Like the best “food porn” movies, Ramen Shop is an expression of authentic passion, the kind fostered by abiding connections not simply to food but to the people, places and times food recalls. Even before Khoo swaps locations from Japan to Singapore (where the bulk of the narrative plays out), he diligently photographs beautiful, carefully composed ramen bowls laden generously with pork, eggs, scallions and other accoutrement, all resting on a bed of noodles bathing in broth steaming right through the screen and into viewers’ nostrils. Khoo captures the esteem by which ramen is held in Japanese culture and its accompanying sensory experience in a single shot. It’s enough to get the mouth watering and the mind racing.
That’s how Ramen Shop encourages appetites and invites audience curiosity, and to facilitate both, it removes Masato (Takumi Saito) from his hometown in Japan to the birthplace of his late mother, Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw), where, following the present-day passing of his father, Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara), the young man seeks to find out about his ancestry. It turns out Masato doesn’t know a whole lot about his Singaporean roots. He’s never even met his grandmother (Beatrice Chien), or his kindly, sharp-witted uncle, Wee (Mark Lee), which means there’s a mystery afoot. Whatever reason there is for keeping Masato apart from his Singaporean relatives, it can’t be good. Japan did, after all, occupy Singapore during World War 2, and Singapore’s memory is long.
Ramen Shop straddles the line between the sumptuous and the tragic: Khoo, digging deep into what food means to Singapore, positions cuisine not simply as a matter of practice and a function of tradition, but as a marriage between cultures that strengthens. Blending elements of one culture’s cuisine with those of another’s means creating new cultures, new traditions and new customs, and that act of creation can reconcile old grudges and temper bad blood. Masato intends to learn to cook bak kut teh, Singaporean pork rib soup, a working man’s dish, but his goals expand the longer he remains in Singapore. At first he wants only to get to know his maternal family. Eventually, bak kut teh becomes a peace offering, and his trip becomes a mission to heal history’s scars.
That’s a heavy burden to put on a bowl of soup. Ramen Shop is made with little gravity; it’s a bright and airy melodrama that cuts between the present, as Wee teaches Masato the secrets of great bak kut teh, and the past, where Kazuo and Mei Lian make their courtship. This back-and-forth structure stirs up sentimentality that borders on cloying, but as sweet as the film gets, there’s an ever-present bitterness to Khoo’s plot, the kind introduced by unspeakable horrors we all prefer to ignore than address. (A sequence where Masato visits a museum and listens to gruesome audio testimony of Japanese war crimes committed on Singaporean soil may require the faint hearted to reach for the nearest bucket.)
Khoo knows he can’t tell this story without facing up to the barbaric violence inflicted on Singapore’s people in WW2. Without that acknowledgment, Ramen Shop would be overwrought and undercooked at the same time. Maybe this is a case of Khoo having his cake and eating it: He gets to touch on a branch of history that most WW2 films tend to ignore, and he also gets to make a movie that’ll leave viewers with rumbling tummies. But in keeping with Ramen Shop’s support of cultural cross-pollination, joining love of food with acceptance of history as prejudice’s breeding ground results in a movie that packs surprisingly authentic emotional power. Food lets people discover who they really are; that’s nothing new. But food also lets us reconnect with the dead in profound ways. In Ramen Shop, a sip of broth and a slurp of noodles means more than a trip down memory lane. It means a second chance to say goodbye to loved ones.
Director: Eric Khoo
Writers: Tan Fong Cheng, Wong Kim-Hoh
Starring: Takumi Saito, Jeanette Aw, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee, Beatrice Chien
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.