Japan, modern-day: an emotionally distant father dies. His son, Masato (Takumi Saito), who also lost his mother at an earlier age, decides to close down his father’s, now his, ramen stand, leave his dog with friends, and head off to Singapore. He’s in search of a new cuisine, specifically the recipe for Bak Kut Teh (pork rib soup), which he plans to incorporate with ramen noodles for his restaurant.
Of course, that’s not the only reason: his mother was Singaporean, and Masato hopes that by tracing her steps, he might come to know her better. As these things go, Masato learns of an old family grudge that has kept him at arm’s length from his heritage. But it’s nothing a hearty bowl of soup won’t fix.
Shot with soft lighting and staging fit for a daytime soap opera, Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh in Japanese) is a family melodrama made for acolytes of Parts Unknown and other travel/food shows. Considering this Japanese-Singapore-French co-production features no recognizable stars, Ramen Shop probably wouldn’t have made it to the states if not for the recent popularity of high-end ramen dishes. Come they will, those noodle aficionados who proclaim that the stomach is the heart of every culture.
Yes, food is culture, but food is also class. There’s a telling scene in Ramen Shop where Masato and Miki (Seiko Matsuda) sit on the waterfront overlooking the squat apartments that line the ocean and the towering luxury condos behind them. Miki, a food blogger, tells Masato about the origin of the pork rib soup he so desires: The laborers who unloaded the boats were too poor to afford meat, so they would take the discarded bones and make a flavorful soup full of rich nutrients to keep them healthy. Many years later, the soup became a signature dish.
Later, Masato and Miki have a similar conversation about ramen: “Chinese noodles,” they were once called, and only the impoverished ate them. Now, ramen is one of Japan’s most consumed dishes.
Some of the most popular cuisines in the world were born from poverty: noodles, broths, bouillabaisse, tripe, tacos, hot dogs, and so on. Even beverages like beer and coffee have transcended humble beginnings and are now seen as canvases for high-end ingredients, celebrity chef concoctions, and Instgramable moments. But, like Masato and Miki discussing pork rib soup and ramen, these origins are often forgotten or dismissed. Admission without acknowledgment amounts to nothing.
It’s unclear if writer/director Eric Khoo intended for this subtle criticism or stumbled on it blindly. Either way, it’s a telling moment in an otherwise routine movie that’s full of talk but thin with comprehension. Kind of like the guy who can go on and on about how the soup is cooked, the beer is brewed, or the taco is assembled without a single notion of why any of those choices were made in the first place.
Ramen Shop (2018)
Written and directed by Eric Khoo
Produced by Junxiang Huang, Yutaka Tachibana, Shin Yamaguchi
Starring: Takumi Saitô, Seiko Matsuda, Jeanette Aw, Tsuyoshi Ihara
Strand Releasing, Not rated, Running time 89 minutes, Opens April 12, 2019