What is it you’re thinking about when you’re scarfing down some gross (but delicious) meal from a fast food joint? Is it about the fats and juices running from the tender meat? The crispness of a french fry? Or just filling up to go about your day? Ramen Shop channels a stance on food that comes across as admirable in its preparation, mouth-watering in its presentation, nostalgic in its story, and inspiring in its respect. Though it maybe doesn’t add up to a main course, Ramen Shop’s positive outlook and tantalizing food make it, at least, a tasty appetizer.
Director: Eric Khoo
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Working at his father’s burger joint ramen shop, Masato (Takumi Saito) leads a bit of a strained life with his pops, thanks to his mother being out of the picture. When his father dies suddenly, an impulsive trip to Singapore (his mother’s home country) yields culinary-fueled memories and family reconnections for the young ramen chef.
To start with the sour, Ramen Shop isn’t a particularly engaging film. Its opening shots (after a mouth-watering title sequence set against some picturesque soup-prep) recall Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, or modern favorite Hirokazu Kore-eda in their quaint depiction of small-town Japanese life. But where the films from those directors embody a consistency and purpose in their tranquil composition, Ramen Shop goes on to feel a little dull at times. Dealing so largely with the past relationship of Masato’s parents, we get a lot of very straightforward, “here’s-how-it-happened” flashbacks. Perfectly fine, though they’re tinged with a desaturation that makes an already-uninteresting film look just a little less… interesting. Know what is interesting? Food, and in that category Ramen Shop delivers (for orders of $15+).
The aforementioned beauty of Ramen Shop might not come across in its composition or general cinematographic qualities, but it does in its exploration of cuisine. Though ramen is in the name, Masato travels to Singapore with pork-rib soup, or bak kut teh, on the mind. He remembers fondly being taken to his uncle’s restaurant by his mother, the experience of sharing the soup important both for the food itself and the company shared. It’s a connection to his lost mother, and a crucial element of Ramen Shop’s story.
Not solely with this soup, we’re treated to scenes of characters sitting and enjoying food, discussing its elements, composition, cooking, and so on. It’s a bit of a double-edged butter knife though, with some scenes and dialogue coming across more like a foodie’s YouTube channel than a feature film. The good side of this is that much of the acting in Ramen Shop manages to feel very natural. Characters speak English, Japanese, and Mandarin, not always excellently as they interact with foreigners and reconnect with distant family. There’s something about watching people attempt to speak a language they only know so well that feels naturally believable.
Believable also are the prejudices and strained relationships that come up between Japanese and Chinese characters. Japan’s occupation of Singapore during World War II becomes a plot point late in the film, perhaps too late though, as emerges subtly (too much so, I would say) and doesn’t do much to address it. The black mark of Japan’s wartime cruelty is a grave subject, so I wouldn’t ask a family drama centering around food to take a swing at it. But by attempting it, Ramen Shop opens itself up for being a bit of a wet noodle in that department.
But for its underwhelming substance, Ramen Shop left me with a pleasant impression. It’s light fare, but Khoo’s film is imbedded with an earnest, deep affection for food, both in its preparation and quality, but more so the ways it affects people and builds bonds between them. It’s the other side of the the comfort film coin; explosions and action are nice, but so are bowls of soup and people learning to not hate each other! Though lacking a bit of dramatic spice, for its stomach-rattling food and sweet attitude, Ramen Shop gets a decent tip.