Eric Khoo’s film on food, family, and culture isn’t always strong on plot but is ultimately satisfying.
Of all of humanity’s basic needs, food seems to be the one with which we have the most complex relationship. Food transcends the simple act of nourishment into a complex set of rituals: rituals for both the preparation and consumption of the meal. Learning how to cook is full of multiple layers of meaning. On the surface, we learn how to feed ourselves – a basic survival skill. However, we’re simultaneously being taught the culture we grew up in, as well as the traditions of our individual family units. Food also brings interplay between different cultures to the forefront, even as it masks the history a dish contains. Many of the foods we associate with culture may not be as “native” as we think them to be: Italian food is a prime example, with neither the tomato nor pasta originating on the Italian peninsula.
Ramen Shop, the latest from Singaporean director Eric Khoo, explores the interplay between family and culture by exploring the healing power of a good bowl of soup. After his father’s death, Masato (Takumi Saito) takes a sabbatical from the family ramen shop to learn more about his deceased mother, Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw), by traveling to her native Singapore. With the help of Japanese ex-patriot food blogger Miki (Seiko Matsuda), he finds his uncle Ah Wee (Mark Lee) and learns about the falling out between his mother and grandmother, Madam Lee (Beatrice Chien).
The first half of the film seems more interested in introducing the audience to the food of Singapore. With numerous ethnic groups in the small island, as well as a history of colonization and occupation, the food is a mélange of different cultures, ingredients and cooking techniques. We are introduced to the unique cuisine via a blog post Masato watches while still in Japan, on a chili crab dish that is popular in the city-state. When he arrives in Singapore, Miki walks him through multiple dishes, instructing him (and the audience) in the intricacies of the spices and technique. The film opens with shots of ramen being prepared, and the food porn on display is mouthwatering.
The rich display of food, however, is contrasted with the relatively hackneyed sentimental family story of the first half. Prior to his father’s death, Masato bemoans that he wishes he was a bowl of ramen so his father would notice him. Once Masato is in Singapore, the story is intercut with flashbacks to Masato’s early childhood with both as well as their parent’s courtship. In it, we see the loving mother and emotionally distant father who can only open up to his wife. It’s a story told many times before, and one that Ramen Shop at first doesn’t add any new dimension to.
The family drama changes about halfway through the movie, when Miki helps Masato track down his maternal uncle Ah Wee, who runs a pork rib soup shop. He invites Masato to stay with him and his family, and also to teach Masato how to make the family’s soup. Lee’s performance as Uncle Wee is definitely the standout of the film. He has a playful energy that acts as a great counterpart to Masato’s generally sullen demeanor. The scene where Wee teaches Masato how to make the soup is the best scene in the movie. His qualitative description for choosing ingredients and cooking techniques coupled with bombastic hand gestures is utterly charming.
The food porn on display is mouthwatering.
Uncle Wee’s character also illuminates the falling out that Mei Lian had with her mother. Madame Lee’s father was killed by Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Singapore and views her daughter’s marriage to a Japanese man as a betrayal. For those who don’t know much about this period of history, Masato visits a museum and the audience is presented with a gruesome story of Japanese soldiers killing Chinese babies.
The way the family’s story ends is ultimately satisfying, which makes it frustrating that the film spent so much time focusing on the more standard pat sentimentality of a son grappling with the memory of a distant father and a mother taken before her time. Had the film introduced the cause of Madame Lee and Mei Lian’s falling out, it would have set up a rather interesting character arc for Masato much earlier. Even after learning about the Japanese occupation, Masato can only focus on how mean Lee was to his mother, only capable of seeing the situation from his and his mother’s position. While Lee’s abandonment of her daughter is cold, it comes from a deep sense of personal trauma. We see Lee feel regret, but it would have been more impacting to also see Masato understand his grandmother more deeply.
While the first half of Ramen Shop dabbles in some familiar dynamics, Khoo’s loving depictions of the food that frame their story carries the film until it can get to a stronger back half, and the ending is as satisfying as a big bowl of ramen.
Ramen Shop is playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center May 24-30. Get tickets here.