There are some foods that absolutely take us back to our childhoods. For me, it’s grilled cheese and butterscotch pudding. Both foods fill me with happy memories of fun-filled days that are awash with sunlight. For Masato (Takumi Saitoh/斎藤工, BLANK 13), it’s his mother’s bak kut teh, or pork rib soup, that warms his soul. These days, though, Masato’s soul is anything but warm. A chef in his family’s tiny ramen restaurant in the city of Takasaki, in central Japan, Masato wishes that his father, Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara/伊原剛志, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA), would pay as much attention to him as he does to the ramen he serves up to his customers. After Kazuo dies suddenly, Masato finds a suitcase that contains the memorabilia of his Singaporean mother who died when he was 10 years old. Wishing to reclaim his mother’s memory, he decides to go to Singapore to hopefully find his uncle (Singaporean actor Mark Lee/李国煌, KING OF MAHJONG) and ask the man to teach him his mother’s soup recipe. With the help of Miki (’80s pop idol Seiko Matsuda/松田聖子), an expat Japanese food blogger living in the island city-state, he’s not only reintroduced to the wonderful richness, complexity and variety of the local cuisine, he reconnects with his Singaporean family and learns why they have been estranged for so long.
Singaporean director Eric Khoo/邱金海, TATSUMI)’s latest film, RAMEN TEH, is both a love letter to his hometown and to the people everywhere who made the food that remains special to us today. The film premiered last year (2018) as part of the Culinary Cinema section of the Berlinale and has been making its way around the world ever since. Though Masato’s family situation can be described as being “complicated” at best, Khoo strikes an optimistic note that coming together over a good bowl of pork rib soup can heal any family rift. Not surprisingly, the film features a fair bit of food porn (as well as a brazen promo for Singapore Tourism), though it’s nothing like what we’ve seen in the mouth-watering JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI, TAMPOPO or in the two MIDNIGHT DINER films.
While Saitoh makes for a convincing lost soul, his wistfulness can get a bit tedious to watch after an hour. Fortunately, just when it gets too much, Lee enters the story and gives it a much needed jolt of humour and energy. The scene of Uncle Wee teaching Masato how to prepare the ingredients for the perfect bak kut teh is the film’s highlight and I suspect much of that dialogue was ad libbed. A few minor characters used as plot devices could easily have been incorporated into the other characters had the writing been tighter.
That being said, RAMEN TEH is perfectly harmless fare. Its heart is in the right place and, although it does gets bogged down in over-sentimentality, it did bring me close to tears by the time the end credits rolled up the screen.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, June 14th, back at the usual time of 8:30 am HK time!
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