Cinema: ‘Ramen Shop’ Has Beauty In Every (Giga) Bite
The expression ‘food for thought’ has never been more applicable than in Ramen Shop (Eric Koo 2018). In this visual masterpiece, a ramen chef, Masato (Takumi Saitoh) mourns the recent passing of his father, Kazuo (Tetsuya Bessho). After going through Kazuo’s personal belongings, Masato finds a journal written in Mandarin that belonged to his late mother, Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw). To remember and honor both of his parents, Masato journeys to Singapore to learn how to make his mother’s famous bak kut teh, a meticulously crafted pork rib soup from his maternal uncle, Uncle Wee (Mark Lee).
The film opens in media res, with more character background and information explained as the film progresses. Both silence and soundtrack play a profound role in Ramen Shop. For the first half of the film, silence is prevalent, even jarring at times. Its absence is as looming as the loss of Masato’s parents. The closer Masato gets to his mother’s family in Singapore – both physically and emotionally – the more the silence becomes more noticeable. On the other hand, whenever Masato is learning something of importance or during the flashbacks of his parents’ courting period, the soundtrack appears. It is a simple but effective technique to strengthen the emotional impact of certain scenes. For instance, the reconciliation between Masato and his matriarchal grandmother, Madame Lee (Beatrice Chien), is without background music. There is nothing to distract from witnessing her grief at the loss of her daughter and the bittersweet reunion of her estranged grandson.
Even more so than sound, Ramen Shop is a film characterized by visuals. The mis-en-scene is absolutely breath taking. There are a lot of beautiful long shots of the various landscapes. From rice paddies to the bustling streets of Singapore, the tranquility and the vivacity of life is captured. Food and flashbacks are the backbone of this film. A good chunk of the screen time is devoted to closeups of delicious dishes being prepared or eaten. Ramen Shop is a transnational production, featuring several languages, cultures, and cast members. Characters go from speaking Japanese, to English, to Cantonese, and Mandarin. Much like food fusion, this film is a fusion of international talent. A great film to watch when hungry, this film is for anyone searching for culinary or travel inspiration.
With all that in mind, this film starts out beautiful, but bland. As fantastic and flavorful as the food depicted is, the pacing is somewhat lacking. While an appreciated deviance from the sheer rapidity of mainstream Hollywood, it’s at times too lethargic, particularly in the beginning. Understandably, Masato is grieving the untimely death of his father, but his silence is stifling. In combination with the lack of a consistent soundtrack, it can be dull for some viewers. It’s almost like being serenaded to sleep by a visually stunning lullaby.
What’s missing from the first half of the film is what makes the second half so worthwhile. Conflict. Madame Lee isn’t introduced until well into the later portion. It is her disapproval of Masato and his father that becomes Masato’s drive to learn even more cuisine and history in Singapore even after he’s mastered the bak kut teh. There is a lot of focus on culinary and historical lessons prior to the familial melodrama, but it is an essential part of the plot. Although not heavily touched upon, the film does reference Japan’s occupation of Singapore during World War II. During one of the scenes, Masato visits a museum currently hosting an exhibit on the subject. The testimonies and witness accounts help both Masato and the audience understand his grandmother’s hesitation to accept a Japanese man into her family. However, the post-war tensions are not the focus of the film, food and family is.
All in all, the film itself is like the recipes it depicts. Time consuming, and there’s a lot patience involved, but the end result is definitely worth it. Give Ramen Shop time to marinate, and it will not disappoint.