Ramen Shop (Eric Khoo, 2018)

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Opening this weekend at the Northwest Film Forum is this perfectly fine food drama by one of Singapore’s leading directors. After his father, a successful ramen chef, dies, a young man heads to Singapore in search of his mother’s family. Gauzy flashbacks fill in his parents’ back story in-between meetings with his estranged uncle and grandmother. His father, Japanese, and his mother, Chinese, married against her mother’s wishes, her hostility a result of lingering hatred of the Japanese following their occupation of the city-state during World War II. But as resentments and hatred are passed down through the generations, so too are recipes, taught from parent to child, adding personal touches learned from their own life experience. The cuisine of Singapore, with its influences from throughout East and South Asia as well as Europe is the blunt instrument of metaphor in Eric Khoo’s quiet, yet maudlin melodrama. The young man’s journey is as much about learning the recipes of his mother’s family as it is reconciling himself to the past atrocities of his father’s homeland. English serves as the lingua franca, bridging the gap between ancient hatreds, facilitating the fusion of Japanese ramen (itself a combination of Japanese flavors with Chinese noodles) with Singaporean pork rib soup (a combination of Chinese soup with Southeast Asian flavors).

As a vision of transnational solidarity dramatized by a Japanese person’s trip to Singapore, it’s vastly more conventional and less interesting than Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism, which also played at last year’s Japan Cuts festival but which is not getting, as far as I know, even a very limited North American release. Probably because the food, at least, looks much better. Though even that pales in comparison to the food in the quiet Korean drama Little Forest (a second adaptation of a manga, the first of which, a Japanese version, played in two parts at SIFF a few years ago), which likewise won’t see American theatres, but you can stream it on Amazon.

Regardless, I too hope to one day pass down to my grandchildren my own ramen recipe, which I’ll also share with you here:

1. In a small pot, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add noodles, breaking up if desired. Cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Remove from heat. Stir in seasoning from soup base packet.
3. Try adding an egg, vegetables, or meat as desired.

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SIFF 2017: Mr. Long (Sabu, 2017)

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The SIFF program describes this as “Yojimbo meets Tampopo“, which definitely has an “I can only think of two Japanese movies” vibe, in that it isn’t really like either of those movies except its main character is a man who slices up people for hire and also sometimes makes noodles. It’s more akin to Johnnie To’s Where a Good Man Goes, but I’m probably only saying that because I’m the kind of person who compares everything to a Johnnie To movie.

Chang Chen’s a hitman in Kaohsiang who gets sent to Japan to kill someone. The job gets botched and he barely escapes. Recovering in a dilapidated slum, he’s befriended by a young boy (whose mom is a junkie) and eventually a whole community of locals, who figure out that he’s an excellent cook and, in like two days, build him an apartment and a noodle cart, while at the same time he helps the mom kick her heroin habit. It’s a story of rebirth fostered by community, and its portrait of the unity of people living on the margins recalls the spirit of no less than Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons. The fairy tale approach is leavened by a harder edge, but director Sabu (last seen here as Samurai #1 in Scorsese’s Silence) keeps things brisk and light, with long wordless stretches scored jauntily by Junichi Matsumoto. Chang’s deadpan performance is a delight, even as his hair comes perilously close to “Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element”. Befuddled as to why the locals seem to like him, the kid explains “it’s because you keep cool and don’t say anything”. Taiwanese actress Yao Yiti is unconvincing as a junkie (she cleans up into super-adorable way too quickly), but shines in her extended flashback, providing the unlikely link between her and Chang. That that link should go undiscovered by the characters involved is one of the many small idiosyncrasies of Sabu’s storytelling, one which defies both Hollywood notions of causality and Hong Kong traditions of cosmic coincidence.

SIFF 2017: Cook Up a Storm (Raymond Yip, 2017)

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One of only two Hong Kong films to be playing at SIFF this year is this cooking film from star Nicholas Tse and director Raymond Yip. It’s a Lunar New Year film, opening a week after the holiday both at home and abroad, to avoid box office competition from Tsui Hark and Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. It played here briefly at the Pacific Place, but SIFF is reviving it for the festival. I’m not exactly sure why, probably because of the food. Director Yip is strictly workmanlike, the guiding force behind the film is Tse, who has been one of the more figures in Hong Kong over the past twenty years. The son of star actor Patrick Tse (Story of a Discharged Prisoner), he began as a popular singer before moving into movies (Time and Tide, Jade Goddess of Mercy, Bodyguards & Assassins) and television (where he hosts and cooks on a popular foodie show called Chef Nic) and a series of romantic entanglements with Faye Wong and Cecilia Cheung. Cook Up a Storm appears to be an attempt to extend the Chef Nic brand, as Tse plays a local Cantonese chef challenged by a European-trained, Michelin-starred chef who opens an upscale restaurant across the street. Both Nic and the new chef (a truly international man: half-Korean and half-Chinese, raised and trained in Europe, he’s played by Korean singer/actor Jung Yong-hwa) have secrets which they must overcome to win a game show-style culinary competition.

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