Marrow Drama: A Review of 'Ramen Teh' (2018)

The inevitable peril of films that depict or evoke the creative processes of other art forms almost always concerns the terms of engagement; too hung up on the methods and you have yourself a documentary, a teaching aid, or even a DIY guide (itself perfectly benign but rarely an art). Too focused on the product, and you either make advertisements, or run the risks of losing the art to the artwork—a real point of contention for practitioners who do not have the institutional benefits of death (no money no problem when you are just bones and ashes) and need the press attention to ensure bookings and/or attendance, and thus income.

Culinary cinema, unlike its brethren the dance films, the musicals, and the sports films, is thus a genre fraught with both the pitfalls of an effusive identity as well as an unclear purview of exactly what it means to make cinema culinarily. Films about dance and dancers may not necessarily be dance films (Aronofsky’s Black Swan and both installments of the Magic Mike series come to mind), but films about food and its preparation whether as a central figure or as character-building process are certain to be culinary cinema, even those as distinctively disimilar as Ratatouille and Eat Drink Man Woman. For the love of movies, a term better and less redolent of classic elitism for this entire topical category could just have been food films, or if one is so inclined, movies à la munchies.

Ramen Teh, by now the seventh feature of pioneering Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, is a welcoming return to form after two works of major contentions, the erotic anthology drama In The Room, and Cinema, a segment in the multi-director nation-building anthology 7 Letters, Singapore’s bid for the Academy Awards in 2015, though it remains rather a let down with no traces of the conscious artistry Khoo had bothered to inject into his earlier works such as his debut Mee Pok Man and his sophomore 12 Storeys—both cinematic landmarks in a landscape where there were formerly none.

Masato (Takumi Saito) is the estranged son of Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who once prepared kaiseki-ryōri in Singapore during the heydays of the Nineties’ economic boom before the financial crisis, and together they run a small ramen store with the help of Akio (Tetsuya Bessho), Masato’s uncle who tries his best playing mediator. As is common with the general trend for mother-less nuclear families to resent each other onscreen, Masato is simultaneously aching for and disdainful of the company he might find with his father, who works a lot and drinks a lot too. Just outside of the picture is Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw), Kazuo’s dead Singaporean wife and Masato’s mother, whose ghost still looms over her still grieving husband, though remains not more than a warm memory for her son.

After Kazuo dies of a sudden stroke one fine day, Masato is struck by his own abrupt stroke of inspiration for some soul-searching, and embarks on a trip to Singapore guided by Japanese food blogger Miki (Seiko Matsuda), based in the sunny isle herself, to find the remainder of his extant family and learn the truth of their disconnect.

What follows is a serendipitous sequence of events masquerading as a plot, when it is really ostensibly an advertorial for moneyman Singapore Tourism Board: Masato and Miki eats their way across Singapore with Miki’s mellow verbal recitations of standard definitions and travel guide write-ups in tow, searching for Masato’s maternal uncle and his esteemed bak kut teh (pig bone soup) while visiting monuments captured in photographs of his parents’ youth with an improbable geo-locating acumen for a tourist with limited English capabilities.

Naturally, the two bumps into Masato’s uncle Ah Wee (Mark Lee) by eating at his restaurant, an upgrade from the dingy eatery of Mei Lian’s expositional diary flashbacks and Masato’s own childhood impressions, and the two hit it off like there never were decades-old gulf separating them. Indeed, it is almost magical how Masato could comprehend the rapid-fire creole of Uncle Wee when his own responses were stunted in comparison. One thing leads to another and before long, Masato has moved in with the family and learnt the joys of South East Asian cooking.

Soon enough, Masato meets Grandma (Beatrice Chien) who tosses him out the door emotionally with all the ferocity of a World War II survivor. There were attempts to reconcile the two nations’ tumultuous history via a television broadcast of a very real debate concerning the titling of a Japanese Occupation exhibition at a local museum, which supposedly moves Masato, but the feeble script ensured that the agonizing conflict within himself on his troubled heritage came across as petulance, as he bangs on Granny’s door at night, drunk, angry, and verbally incontinent in Japanese. To all of Masato’s efforts, Miki follows up with her usual chipper saccharine encouragement: “You’re just like ramen; a mix of the best parts of Chinese and Japanese culture,” and introduces him to Keisuke Takeda, the restaurateur who plays himself as a local ramen don both onscreen and off it.

The two makes peace eventually, of course, as Masato sought to redeem himself in the eyes of the grande dame by devising a dish for her himself: the ramen teh, a portmanteau of his own ramen and his uncle’s bak kut teh, a supposed blend of the best of both worlds. Granny eats it and cries, overtaken with guilt for rejecting her daughter over her marriage to a Japanese devil and, presumably, sending her to an early grave. Peace and long lost familial love restored in one fell swoop, Granny then takes Masato grocery shopping and after that cooks and feeds him an authentic Cantonese meal. They cry again, and after everything, Masato moves to Singapore and opens his own restaurant dedicated to his unique creation. Little boy lost has found himself at last; God is in his heaven, all’s right with the world.

If this review feels as though it might have glossed over certain portions, it only portends the exact same that the film had done. At a runtime of only ninety minutes, there is a certain sense of incompletion that courses through the veins of the entire movie. In a bid to move from narrative point A to B via the shortest route, Khoo has, perhaps unwittingly, missed out on the humanistic story of the processes of assimilation and reconciliation that the pathos of a film dealing with topics as heavy as grief and historical prejudice would hinge on, and form the bulk of its honest moments.

Show don’t tell, the oldest adage of storytelling goes, but Ramen Teh has done nothing but show—there were no tenderness to the courtship of Mei Lian and Kazuo, displayed ad infinitum and nauseam in robotic flashbacks via Mei Lian’s diary, just quick perfunctory affections spoken in shoddily written lines, no lapses into private jokes nor intimate rituals between lovers; there were no steady easing into Masato’s re-integration with his uncle’s family, there were no awkward pauses of cultural divide and unfamiliarity amidst the big love. One scene had Ah Wee introduce him, and by the next, he is already as thick as thieves with his nieces. The biggest question begged: however did a decades-old hurt be healed instantaneously with lukewarm noodles and some ribs in a tingkat (South Asian lunch box)? Therapists, mental health professionals, dispute resolution specialists should have all migrated into full-time cooking as a vocational choice en masse.

Moreover, it remains incredulous that out of the two, the level-headed and mellow young man should be the one to lapse into histrionics when the obstinate old lady is the one who had suffered two losses to the same people—her husband during the War, and her daughter to a stranger of indeterminate motivation—he had no idea and he could still yell like a champion.

Having shown previously at the Berlinale in the Culinary Cinema sidebar with his superior docu-drama Wanton Mee in 2016, Khoo’s second entry has embraced all of the gloss but learnt none of the nuances that a genuinely moving picture would have to convey the complexities of culture and human interactions through food—the most basal impulse of all. What makes productions like Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate or even the TV serial Hannibal great is not the glory of the food or what it represents directly, but rather the processes and little stories that go into each step of the cooking that allows the completed meals to standalone as characters in their own rights, and not just set pieces to an overcrowded dining table, for the audience to ogle with a voyeuristic bent. If films about food aim to be Anaïs Nin, Ramen Teh is one of those beasties that end up as Jeff Koons circa 1989.

In earlier press engagements for Ramen Teh, the eponymous dish was revealed to be an actual product available at Ramen Keisuke, the namesake restaurant of the chef who cameoed as himself to provide Masato with some guidance. Journalists were welcomed to sample the product, and having tasted it, one would be convinced that the film was exactly like the food it painstakingly strove to construct: passably tasty, suitably artificial, and lacking both the bite and the richness that made its original inspirations such iconic cultural artifacts in the first place.

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