REVIEW / DRAMA
RAMEN TEH (PG)
90 minutes/Opens today/ 2.5 stars
The story: Japanese chef Masato (Takumi Saitoh) travels to Singapore seeking connections here that explain the sadness at the core of his family. He meets food blogger Miki (Seiko Matsuda). Through her, and the people he meets, he gets on the well-fed path to healing.
Singapore food has spawned a thousand blogs, books and columns. Documentaries celebrate the island's cuisine and Instagrammers have flooded the Internet with images shot in coffee shops and cafes.
But no one has tried to make a feature film that puts local food in front. Until now, that is, and fittingly, the film-maker is the one who helped breathe new life into the local film industry three decades ago.
Eric Khoo made his name doing challenging work. One of his recent features explored evolution of sexuality in the little red dot (In The Room, 2015).
But this time, what he is serving can be described only as comfort food: It is safe, bland and just a little stodgy.
There are films in which food is so prominent, it becomes a character - think Chef (2014) and its lusty homages to beignets and Cuban sandwiches, or the wine-making family in the French film Back To Burgundy (2017) and the way they pick, press and consume barrels of the red stuff.
Khoo's film, however, is not a movie about food obsessives yoked to a drive for perfection, with all the food porn images that such movies tend to pack in.
Rather, this is a straightforward drama of food and family ties, and Ramen Teh adopts a familiar foodie-film narrative, the one in which food is not just celebrated as food, but also as a metaphor for love.
Characters use food to say what they cannot express in words. Certain dishes evoke memories of a time filled with tenderness and the painstaking care taken in cooking represents the fondness of the cook for the diner.
The story begins with a mystery, a secret pain shared between old chef Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and son Masato (Saitoh), and answers come in the form of flashbacks that occur over the first and second acts.
Along the way, he will meet local bak kut teh (pork rib soup) chef Wee (Mark Lee), leading to the creation of the hybrid dish - bak kut teh meets ramen noodles - from which the film takes its title.
Heartwarming foodie films such as this typically make up for the lack of narrative drive with lush images - kitchen preparation montages, lingering close-ups of glistening roasts, sizzling griddles and creamy desserts.
But instead of capturing the perfect drool-worthy shot, Khoo inserts serious, word-driven travelogue guides of Singapore hawker centres and restaurants and potted histories of certain dishes.
These diversions add little to a story that already feels thin and emotionally single-layered.
The movie feels afraid to go all in, to embrace the sensuality of its subject matter.
Cinema is a visual medium and the audience gets to partake with their eyes.
A few scenes of Masato and Miki digging in, chopsticks flailing, would have said everything there is to say about the power of food.