What food films teach us about cuisine, culture and society

Gastronomic journeys A still from Eric Kooh’s 2018 film, ‘Ramen Shop’

Gastronomic journeys A still from Eric Kooh’s 2018 film, ‘Ramen Shop’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A recent spate of food films, including ‘Ramen Shop’ and ‘Jimami Tofu’, go beyond cuisine to talk about how food affects our lives, and vice versa. But the ultimate ramen film will always be the 1985 classic ‘Tampopo’, says the columnist

Despite the peripatetic nature of this column, it keeps returning to the subject of food in cinema, simply because as long as the two exist, they are destined to be together. The films I watched recently on the subject have a Japanese connect, touch upon the political impact that Japan has had on her South East Asian neighbours, and are a quest for roots. In Mitsuhito Shiraha’s What’s For Dinner, Mom? (2016), based on the memoir by Tae Hitoto, a pair of sisters visit their late mother’s home and come across a box of letters and recipes written by her.

The film flashes back to how their mother, a Japanese woman married to a Taiwanese man, shifts base to Taiwan, becomes adept at cooking the local cuisine, moves back to Japan after her husband’s death, but keeps preparing Taiwanese food for her daughters. The protagonist, Tae, is somewhat overshadowed by her sister, who is a popular singer, and is concerned with exploring her Taiwanese identity. While warm and affectionate — sometimes stomach-growlingly so while looking at Taiwanese food — the film soars when it explores the complex history between Taiwan and Japan, with the latter nation occupying the former for a number of years, thus elevating it from being a mere food porn movie.

Singaporean auteur Eric Khoo returns with Ramen Shop (2018), his second film with a food theme after Wanton Mee (2016). His debut Mee Pok Man (1985) had the protagonist running a noodle shop, but it was anything but a foodie film. The protagonist of Ramen Shop is a young man, who after the deaths of his Japanese father and Singaporean mother, decides to visit the island city-state in search of his uncle who makes a legendary bak kut teh (pork rib soup). The film celebrates the rich diversity of Singaporean cuisine, with its Indian, Chinese and Malay antecedents, and also examines the Chinese roots of ramen. Khoo also touches upon the scars left on Singapore by the Japanese occupation of it during World War II, after the capitulation of the British colonisers. The film will leave you feeling warm, fuzzy and hungry.

While on the subject, it would be churlish not to mention Jason Chan and Christian Lee’s Jimami Tofu (2017). The protagonist here is a Chinese-Singaporean chef who used to work in Tokyo, and is now in Okinawa learning to prepare traditional delicacies. Meanwhile, a sharp-tongued food critic finds herself eating her way through Singapore. The two have previous, as they say. The focus here is food and romance, with no politics at all.

Finally, if you want to abandon yourself to the elemental seduction of ramen, look no further than Koki Shigeno’s documentary that has the no nonsense title Ramen Heads (2017). The film documents Japan’s top ramen establishments and lovingly inspects the near-obsessive ways in which the dish is fashioned, with dollops of history, culture and even some philosophy en route. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch, yet again, the ultimate ramen film, Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985).

The author is a journalist and author of Rajinikanth: The Definitive Biography, and tweets @namanrs

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 10:34:46 PM |

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