Ramen Shop: For the Hungry Boy, by Craig Schroeder
Just as movies are empathy machines, as Roger Ebert famously quipped, food also allows people to relate to experiences wildly different from their own. Some of cinema’s greatest moments are those that exploit the inextricable link between food and the human condition. In recent years, Phantom Thread, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Call Me By Your Name all have memorable food scenes that define mood, tempo, and character and convey love, hate, anger, sexuality, jealousy, and grief. A more overt depiction is Eric Khoo’s new film, Ramen Shop, which flirts with maudlin sentimentality but whose reverence for the power of food makes it a success.
Takumi Saitoh is Masato, a Japanese-Singaporean twenty-something who operates a small ramen restaurant in Japan with his father. His mother, a woman from Singapore, has long since died. When his father (Tsuyoshi Ihara, who appeared in Takashi Miike’s brilliant 13 Assassins alongside Saitoh) dies unexpectedly, Masato leaves Japan for Singapore in an effort to reclaim his family history. Armed with his mother’s old diary and with the help of an estranged uncle—a local restauranteur famous for his pork rib soup—Masato attempts to address the questions left unanswered by his mother’s untimely death.
Working with a spartan screenplay, Saitoh imbues Masato with a sense of wonder and amazement. He moves through the world with a whale-eyed expression of curiosity, like a child watching a fireworks display. The screenplay gives the actors room to perform but is unable to avoid the occasional sentimental aphorism when the film languishes for a bit too long. But all of the component parts are at their absolute best in the meditative moments about the power of food. Whether it’s pork rib soup, a perfectly crafted bowl of ramen, or a fish head curry, there is an intimacy and detail to the way the film portrays food; stagnant, symmetrical shots of completed dished are preceded by chaotic close-ups of sizzling meat and knives slicing through exotic fruits. And even the more heavy-handed moments—like Masato watching with affection as a boy and his mother cook together followed by a cut to a flashback of Masato and his own mother cooking—are rendered less offensive by the film’s admiration of the power of food.
And though the screenplay occasionally has to navigate out of clunky exposition and saccharine dialogue, it handles delicate themes with tenderness and grace. Masato’s maternal family members are Singaporeans whose family was torn asunder by the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II. When Masato’s mother chose to marry a Japanese man, all these years after the war, resentment still festered and Masato and his parents were excised from the family like a suspect mole. Khoo, himself a Singaporean, handles these delicacies with dignity, never casting judgment on any party involved while asking the characters and the audience to open their eyes to differing perspectives.
In Ramen Shop, empathy is expressed through a reverence for food. Singapore is an assemblage of Asian cultures and the film highlights dishes from India, China, Japan, and Korea. In Japanese, Mandarin, and English, the film itself is the result of the very building blocks of diverse cultures colliding with one another. And when the characters experience a revelation or a breakthrough, they do so over a new dish. Though Ramen Shop may trip over itself from time to time, it understands the fundamental importance of the way food allows people to connect to their own culture and those cultures around the world. More endearingly, the film shows food can unite two strangers from across the planet but can also transcend anger and resentment and make room for love and forgiveness.