Japan was one of Singapore’s most important trading partners during the city-state republic’s early years of independence and it is still true today. The two nations enjoy strong economic and political ties, yet many older Singaporeans still bitterly remember the pain of the Japanese occupation. These long harbored resentments led to a schism within a Japanese ramen chef’s family. However, he will find cathartic healing through food in Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop, which opens today in New York.
If you want to get technical about it, Masato will leave the film’s proper ramen shop after about fifteen minutes, following the death of its master chef, his emotionally detached father Kazuo. While going through his father’s effects, he found letters and his Singaporean mother’s Mandarin journal. Although he cannot read them, they fire his curiosity regarding the family she was estranged from. Hoping to find answers, as well as recipes for the local-style comfort food she used to cook for him, Masato impulsively returns to the Singapore he only knew as a small boy.
With the help of Miki, a food blogger he met online, Masato tracks down his Uncle Wee, who is delighted to welcome him into the family and teach him the recipe for Bak Kut Teh, or pork ribs soup. Unfortunately, the grandmother Masato never met will be pricklier to approach.
In many ways, Ramen Shop is a text book example of weepy culinary cinema. Many a sentimental tear will be shed over warm bowls of soup. However, Masato’s smart and sensitively drawn relationships with Uncle Wee and Miki elevate the film to a higher level. Khoo and screenwriters Tan Fong Cheng & Wong Kim Hoh deliver plenty of the expected big hanky moments, but the real pay-off is surprisingly subtle. It also should be stipulated pork ribs soup looks delish, even if it isn’t as photogenic as other movie-memory-stirring foods.
Takumi Saito is achingly earnest as Masako. He also develops some warm and deeply compelling chemistry with Mark Lee and Seiko Matsuda, who both ironically overshadow him as Uncle Wee and Miki respectively. Lee provides the film some comic nervous energy, but never gets remotely shticky, whereas the luminously charismatic Matsuda truly lights up the screen. The same can be said of Jeanette Aw. She and Tsuyoshi Ihara generate more tragically romantic wistfulness as Masato’s parents seen in flashbacks than entire marathon of Nicholas Sparks movies.
It might be tempting to call Ramen Shop something like Departures with better food, but it happens to be more upbeat than the Oscar-winning gold standard of Japanese tear-jerkers. Plus, the film’s consultant chef, Keisuke Takeda really put the resulting Ramen-Bak Kut Teh hybrid dish on his restaurant’s menu, so you know the food is legit. Sometimes, it is just nice to see a quiet film that is completely free of cynicism—exactly like this one. Recommended for audiences of foodie movies and ultra-accessible foreign films, Ramen Shop opens today (3/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.