Food and memory (re)connect in uncommonly emotional ways in this measured, heartfelt and very accessible work by Eric Khoo.
Dir. Eric Khoo
2018 | Singapore/Japan | Drama | 89 mins | 1.85:1 | Japanese, English & Mandarin
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Jeanette Aw, Mark Lee, Beatrice Chien, Jerrold Chong
Plot: Masato, a young Ramen chef, leaves his hometown in Japan to embark on a culinary journey to Singapore to find out the truth about his past. He uncovers a lot more than family secrets and delicious recipes.
Awards: Official Selection – Culinary Cinema (Berlin)
International Sales: MK2
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed in theatres – first published 20 Mar 2018)
Eric Khoo continues his love affair with food on screen in what could be one of his finest films. Like Wanton Mee (2016) two years ago, his latest Ramen Teh premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival under their Culinary Cinema programme, where paying audiences were treated to dishes inspired by the film after the screening.
For the uninitiated, the film’s title refers to the Japanese favourite, ramen noodles, and bak kut teh (pork bone tea), which is a popular Chinese dish with pork ribs in soup. Needless to say, the thought of those dishes makes the stomach growl, so it is fairly easy to imagine how one might feel salivating at those dishes (and more) on the big screen—don’t suffer the ignominy of watching this on an empty stomach.
After the career low of In the Room (2015), it is reassuring to see one of Singapore’s most accomplished filmmakers back in the game, focusing on a story about a young Japanese man, Masato (Takumi Saitoh), who visits Singapore after many years to find out more about his Singaporean-born mother (Jeanette Aw), who has since passed on after an unexpected illness. He also becomes acquainted with an older Japanese woman (Seiko Matsuda) living in Singapore who helps him to navigate the country.
Food and memory, the two major themes of Khoo’s work, (re)connect in uncommonly emotional ways as Masato seeks closure, and even reconciliation (in one of the film’s most touching scenes), while at the same time rekindling his culinary dream of setting up his own restaurant to sell a fusion soup dish with ramen and pork ribs that represents the two cultures that have defined him, not to mention to remember his food-making parents by.
Ramen Teh may operate like a straightforward drama with its unfussy and unhurried storytelling, but Khoo manages to balance humour and pathos with a measured approach, showing restraint and avoiding the trap of melodramatism. A key indicator is how he used music to temper the emotions, for instance, with piano arrangements that are more contemplative in nature.
The overall tone of Ramen Teh is heartfelt, perhaps even sincere. Some might find parts of it nostalgic, while others will resonate with the stories of families and food. Discounting Wanton Mee, it is Khoo’s most accessible feature film since 12 Storeys (1997), and one for the family to savour.