From Mee Pok Man to his more recent work like Recipe and Wanton Mee, food has been recurring muse for renowned Singaporean director Eric Khoo for some time now. Which is why his latest cinematic dish feels like such a natural step for the filmmaker’s movie menu. After first making waves during its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, Ramen Teh is now available for mass consumption in theatres back home, where local cinephiles are eager to experience Khoo’s intriguing fusion cuisine on the big screen.
Beginning in Japan, the film follows a ramen chef named Masato (Takumi Saito) from the city of Takasaki. After the sudden passing of his depressive and detached father Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara), the young man discovers an old journal and a suitcase of remembrances belonging to his Singaporean mother Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw) – who died when he was just a boy. Eager to rediscover his forgotten familial past, and piece together the mystery of his parents’ relationship, Masato hurriedly journeys to the Lion City on an emotional whim.
When in Singapore, Masato is brought around by online friend and Japanese food blogger Miki (played sweetly by 80s’ J-pop idol Seiko Matsuda) to try out Singapore’s rich variety of culinary offerings. He also tracks down his uncle Ah Wee (Mark Lee’s restrained but crackling comedic performance is the film’s most vibrant role), who runs a bak kut teh restaurant. As he learns his uncle’s process for pork rib soup, Masato also manages to connect with his long-lost maternal relatives, and understand more about his parents’ star-crossed love.
The central conflict and emotional crux of Ramen Teh centers around Masoto’s unyielding grandmother Madam Lee (Beatrice Chien), whose understandable disdain for her daughter’s romance (stemming from her traumatic experiences during the Japanese Occupation) and painful disapproval led to a heartbreaking splintering. Naturally, this is where the movie’s themes of food as a countenance of healing hits home the hardest. Lovingly prepared dishes express tenderness in ways that bridge cultural, language and emotional barriers.
Family and food are classic ingredients in cuisine-themed films such as this, designed to water mouths and eyes alike. Ramen Teh’s adherence to tropes make it a tad predictable, and it’s heavy-handed script (by Fong Cheng Tan and Kim Hoh Wong) can err of the side of schmaltz at times – but the film does hit it’s intended sentimental beats compellingly and convincingly. Just because it’s a familiar recipe doesn’t mean that the meal is any less nourishing, and this movie’s romantic sincerity certainly goes down easy as comfort food for the soul.
Ramen Teh largely succeeds on the strength of Eric Khoo’s gorgeous and patient direction. Besides just capturing incredible food porn shots (a requisite), his restrained sense of pace and commitment to authenticity deftly simmers his audience in this tale of estrangement and reconciliation just long enough to ensure that the film’s more saccharine elements remain grounded. This is a heartwarming entree that you should definitely consider ordering.