Good food movies leave you hungry — and sometimes a lot more than that. Back in 1987, when the press screening of Babette’s Feast at Cannes let out at only 10 in the morning, roughly 2,500 ravenous film critics were unleashed upon a town that had nothing available but croissants and coffee until lunch was ready in another two hours. Nearly every film Les Blank ever made fills the audience with the richness of food and community.
Just last year, Ramen Heads left its audience craving bowls of ramen just as soon as humanly possible. But Eric Khoo’s new movie Ramen Shop doesn’t get you to that hungry spot. It founders on the question of just how food equals love.
Of course, food is love — at least in food movies. The small congregation of severe and joyless religionists in Babette’s Feast smile and gaze lovingly at each other as they slowly realize that a great French meal made with skill and devotion to pleasure is a lot better for the heart and soul than the joyless miseries of the tasteless brown bread that they’ve forced down three times a day. The problem with Ramen Shop is that questions of love and family history are delivered in clichés.
Masato (Takumi Saitô) is a young man who cooks in his father’s ramen restaurant in Japan. His mother, who was from Singapore, died when Masato was young. Since then, his father has grown emotionally absent and depressed. Yet he still loves pork rib soup, a dish from Singapore. When the father dies, though, Ramen Shop starts to head downhill. Masato opens the fateful box of notes and diaries from his mother, and the tinkly music that underlies Masato’s mournful face blares out like a roadside warning: Beware! Uncontrolled sentimentality ahead.
Masato decides to find out about that Singaporean soup his father loved. He bleats to his Tokyo uncle, “So Dad kept her memory alive with every bowl of ramen.” And with that, Masato heads off to Singapore to uncover recipes, another uncle, a still-angry grandmother, family secrets, and a motherlode of tinkly music — all interwoven with fragments of Masato’s early memories of his parents.
Along with those soup recipes, which you might want to write down, Ramen Shop has serious business in mind. The grandmother’s anger does not come out of nowhere; it grows out of the brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II. Plagued and enraged by those memories, the grandmother finds no pleasure in a Japanese son-in-law, or grandson.
But Ramen Shop loses itself in this thicket of genuine questions about the fallout from history and a cloying, sentimental belief that a good bowl of soup cures humanity’s ills. I’d be happy to believe that long-simmering ethnic hatreds can be calmed by the trading and intermingling of recipes, but here it’s just about instantaneous. One spoonful of Masato’s ramen, and Granny lets go of nearly 80 years of fury and resentment. It doesn’t fly, especially when it comes with line upon line of sappy dialogue.
Characters say things like “life is fleeting and filled with sorrow,” which may be true, but they’re delivered like little affirmations you might get from a cellphone app, with long takes of sad faces, looking like they’re intoning great wisdom.
It made me wonder about the subtitles, and whether the translation missed the subtleties of the original, as the dialogue went from spoken Japanese and Chinese into written English, with the added word limitations on screen.
The food does look fabulous, though, and the images of hands arranging noodles in bowls with an egg here, and fish cake and chopped scallions there, really do make you see the effort that the performance of love demands. But the saccharin3 music and talk overpower what you see. If Ramen Shop were silent, it might work a lot better than it does. The sounds put you right off your feed.