If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so too is the way to a movie-lover’s.
In Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh) — the beautiful and brothy, Singaporean-Japanese-French film from director Eric Khoo, the visionary who revived Singaporean cinema — food is more than just sustenance for the stomach; it is medicine for the soul, a rejoinder for the mind, a tie that binds us to ourselves and to those in our lives, newfound and newly passed.
Takumi Saito (the son of a real-life ramen chef) leads Ramen Shop as Masato, who works in his emotionally distant Japanese father Kazuo’s (Tsuyoshi Ihara) ramen shop for which the film derives its name. Ironically, though Khoo’s feature may bear the same name as the famous dish, it’s the Singaporean bak kut teh (literally “meat bone tea”) that acts as its signature entrée. A peppery soup made with pork ribs that simmer to slip-off-the-bone-tenderness, plus plenty of spices (ginger and star anise and cinnamon!), bak kut teh is the plate most often on Masato’s mind — it’s the dish that his late Singaporean mother Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw) used to make him, and one recipe neither Masato nor his father ever perfected before Mei Lian passed away. Grizzled and jaded, still grieving the loss of his wife, Kazuo dies not long after Ramen Shop begins. And this is our inciting moment, the life-altering event for Masato.
Now parentless, Masato ventures to string together the two halves of his identity, discover who his father truly was, learn more about the mother he had far too little time with, and bring light into the dark parts of his life. Masato’s is a heart-rending journey of self-discovery, connection to his matrilineal culture, and reunion with estranged family as he leaves his hometown in Japan and heads for Singapore — his mother’s scribbly notebook Mandarin and a letter from his sweet, sharply funny, secret-keeping cook Uncle Wee (Mark Lee) in his hands and a whole lot of hope in his heart.
Once in Singapore, Masato meets affable Japanese food blogger Miki (J-pop idol Seiko Matsuda), who acts as his guiding light, gusto-provider, translator (she can decipher Mei Lian’s chicken-scratch Mandarin), and culinary convoy along his quest to track down the living family members on his mother’s side. What unravels is an adventure in perfecting bak kut teh (Uncle Wee enthusiastically teaches Masato the proper technique from within the walls of his hazy restaurant), terrible first impressions (Masato’s meet-up with his grandmother, played by Beatrice Chien, goes awfully), and lessons on the traumas that ripped at the seams of his family years before he was born — tension that can still be cut with a knife in the present day.
Khoo carefully weaves flashbacks of Kazuo and Mei Lian’s tumultuous love story in between scenes of Masato and Uncle Wee quickly warming to one another; he and Miki gallivanting through the streets of Singapore in search of morsels each more delectable than the last; and the half-Singaporean, half-Japanese man working to break down the walls his grandmother, who never forgave Mei Lian for marrying the foreign Kazuo and can hardly look at Masato without being reminded of the past, has put up — all while he attempts to make sense of the animosity between Japan and Singapore that dates back to World War II. The resultant tapestry is stunning, one that looks and feels its best when it shakes itself out in the wind and lets its soul billow.
At turns, Ramen Shop can feel cloyingly sweet, dripping saccharine that could cause cavities, but its heart is in the right place when it shows Masato coming to an all-important realization: If a man and a woman whose countries continue to clash could set spite to the back-burner and fall in love with each other over their love for food, who’s to say their families can’t do the same?
With Ramen Shop, Khoo creates mouthwatering magic. This is a film as literally ambrosial as it is figuratively: your cheeks will fill with liquid — anticipatory of the wisp-thin noodles, pork ribs bathing in sapid broths, spicy chili crab and creamy laksa, plump dumplings full to bursting with umami meats and pools of hot soup, and street food seasoned with the spirit of Singapore that speckle the screen — as often as your heart will swell with love for Masoto and his determination to restore his understanding of his family and see them (and himself) in a new, warm light. It resonates with a depth that strikes the innermost core of our beings: the days of our youth, our juvenile vulnerability.
A treat for the eyes, the supple watercolor visuals offering a lived-in feel, a tease for the tastebuds, and a tap into our pink-cheeked inner child, Ramen Shop is a delight through and through. If it’s missing one thing, it’s on the side of the viewer: the film is best viewed with a belly full of chewy noodles and shōyu broth.