Film Review: Not My Mother's Baking (2020)

Just in case you were wondering what the film title means, it’s a millennial daughter spiting her celebrity mother’s bakery-driven fame by starting a YouTube channel named as such, featuring her own baking exploits. Pretty cool isn’t it? This ‘family values’ vehicle packs a few instances of rebellion and impropriety to keep the film crunchy without being too haram.

One of the greatest joys of watching an inter-racial romance and in this case, one involving a Chinese and a Malay person, is seeing how the boundaries of taboos and beliefs are being pushed, such as wondering if the female half, in a hijab, can take some racy flirting or if the male half can take some heat and scrutiny from her doting parents. This film rests on one of the world’s most old-fashioned premises - a couple dealing with societal barriers, like a localised version of Romeo and Juliet, a match not made in heaven, but destined for trouble. 

Sarah is the daughter of a celebrity baker Chef Siti and he meets Edwin through Imran. Imran is the brother of Sarah's bosom buddy Tini, and decided to help Sarah find a videographer for her baking videos. That videographer is Edwin. By calling her a nun for her hijab look, and making other social faux pas, Edwin gets off on the wrong footing with Sarah. But subsequently, their individual, and somehow serendipitous family circumstances force them into a kind of close encounter, right in the filming studios. What ensues is a clandestine slow dance between the two that begins sweet but when the thought of facing their families loomed ahead, their relationship seemed headed for a car crash - one family sells roasted pork and the other has religious requirements. 

Spoiler alert: this film has a happy ending. Actually, the story is told in reverse and the film begins at the end. There isn’t actually a pivotal event that leads us there, it’s just time and tolerance. Over time, Edwin’s mother loosens up from hysteria to cautious acceptance and Sarah’s family learns to come to terms with Edwin’s family trade. Even Chef Siti asks for Edwin’s family recipe for their roast pork (seasoning only of course!) in a act of cultural diplomacy. Over nearly two hours, one seems to be sitting through something akin to a ministry-commissioned video about racial harmony. Most of the story stays within politically-correct boundaries and the inclusion of narration, strangely in Mandarin (despite the director being Malay), seems to try to rein in our understanding of an already didactic film. 

What’s the difference between film and content? Not My Mother’s Baking may offer some clue to that. Film, apart from the more dramatic visual palette, speaks in a different language from content. One can watch ‘content’ in a crowded train with the volume off and still get what’s going on. Film likes to play a little hide and seek with the narrative. This film takes the unfortunate step of joining too many dots, making the experience of watching the film somewhat similar to watching an instructional video. 

To add to the experience, moments of dramatic hyperbole call for our suspension of disbelief too often. In one instance, to prove the ability of Edwin’s sister to keep the family’s hawker business alive, her appearance draws an all-male queue at the stall no shorter than that of an iPhone launch. In another instance, Imran and Edwin get into a fight, rather out of character, in the most inappropriate of places - Sarah’s mother’s bakery class. Even at the beginning, the duplicity in both Sarah and Edwin choosing to do the video in a bid to avoid helping out in their family affairs, seemed too convenient in its narrative logic and too flippant in its use of ‘resolution by SMS’.

While lacking in cinematic fluency, the film does display moments of depth in the exposition of certain relationships. Chef Siti’s threshing out moment with Sarah in the car after feeling disrespected by Sarah’s choice of name for the YouTube programme, offered a sharper lens into her identity both as a mother and as a public figure. A scene in which Edwin's mother asks him to keep a distance from the Taoist altar for fear that it would taint his new-found status as a Muslim, and subsequently breaking down when Edwin extends a hug, speaks more volumes than the conversational cliches often heard throughout the film. The film has indeed a few pertinent points to make about acceptance and tolerance and it could certainly use a more nuanced language. After all, a bit more saltiness before hitting the final sweet spot would make the journey more flavourful.  

Review by Jeremy Sing

Not My Mother's Baking makes its world premiere under the Singapore Panorama section at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival.

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