Eric Khoo’s Ramen Shop hits on the subjects of bigotry and on how food brings warring cultures together. As you may surmise, Ramen Shop opens on the topic of ramen. Something which I, being Asian, a former college student, and poor understand all too well. But then things spin off quickly into prejudice…primarily prejudice between Asian cultures.
Masato (Takumi Saitoh) is a sous-chef at a ramen shop in Japan run by his father Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and his uncle Aikio (Tetsuya Bessho). While the shop manages to stay afloat, Kazuo confesses to a local bartender that he is a failure for this once Grandmaster of cuisine. Life at home between Masato and Kazuo is just as cold and quiet. Masato’s life changes when he shows up at the ramen shop the next morning to find his father dead from a heart attack.
Now Masato is orphaned as both his parents passed. After the funeral, Masato finds his mother Mei Lian’s (Jeanette Aw) journal filled with recipes but can’t read it because it’s written in Mandarin as she is Singaporean. As a young child, Masato’s parents ran a hugely popular Ramen shop in Singapore. Kazuo was a rising Japanese chef and was transferred to Singapore to oversee a high-end restaurant for his mentor. It was in Singapore where Kazuo and Mei Lian fell in love and made beautiful food together. After her death, Kazuo brought Masato back to Japan to escape the memories of his love.
“Masato’s life changes when he shows up at the ramen shop the next morning to find his father dead…”
Masato realizes that he knows very little about his mother and contacts Miki (Seiko Matsuda), a popular Japanese food blogger who lives in Singapore. She agrees to help him track down his mother’s family. Masato is an exceptional chef in his own right and uses the opportunity to find inspiration from the local restaurants, leading to a visual feast of Asian cuisine (I’m in heaven). Masato is taken from meal-to-meal including lavish dim sum dining and meets Singapore’s ramen champion. It doesn’t take long for Masato to finally meet his uncle Wee (Mark Lee), who is also an accomplished restaurateur. Wee insists Masato stay with him and meet his cousins (for the first time). He also agrees to teach him how to make his mother’s signature dish, Pork Rib Soup.
The overall story is interwoven with flashbacks of Kazuo and Mei Lian’s love story through expert food preparation and final dish presentations. As we all know, love is complicated, and like Romeo and Juliet, it’s even more complicated with a Singapore/Japanese dynamic. Mei Lian was ostracized by her mother for marrying a Japanese man as her father was killed by the Japanese during its occupation of Singapore during World War II. Mei Lian would never see her mother (Beatrice Chien) again, nor would she meet her first grandson Masato. The third act involves the tumultuous reunion of Masato and his grandmother…do I smell Pork Rib Soup?
After his father’s death, Masato has no family. He’s a young man orphaned by circumstance, and director Khoo captures Masato’s journey in a beautiful, yet subtle way. Visually speaking the food and its preparation is gorgeous and mouth-watering rivaling any food documentary, and the Singaporean landscape is just as beautiful. My only quibble is everything is shot with a bright white tone, which reduces the vibrancy of color in the food and locale significantly.
“…interwoven with flashbacks of Kazuo and Mei Lian’s love story through expert food preparation and final dish presentations.”
The story of romance between the two lovers, Masato’s parents, from opposite ends of the tracks has been told for centuries, but just as relevant today. I’ve seen firsthand relationships break-up, families torn apart, and under-the-breath chatter about “those people.” Inter-Asian bigotry is not new and not going away anytime soon. Ihara and Aw’s love story feels real and plays well as represented through fine cuisine.
As Masato, Takumi Saitoh is fun to watch and someone you root for from the very start. He has his cooking techniques down, which is my biggest pet peeve about food film. If you play a chef, look like a damn chef. The ending wraps up a little too nicely for my taste, but I would definitely want to give Ramen Shop multiple viewing.
Ramen Shop (2019) Directed by Eric Khoo. Starring Takumi Saitoh, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jeanette Aw, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee. Ramen Shop screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
7.5 out of 10 stars