In Ratatouille, food critic Anton Ego is taken back to his childhood after a small bite of the title dish. His heart is melted by the taste and smells that bring him back to a simpler time, showing the importance that food can have as a tool of unification and emotional resonance. Ramen Shop, from Singapore’s Eric Khoo exists within a similar tone, highlighting the power of dishes and the cultural significance of certain meals in this light story of family, food and the connection between the two.
Masato (Takumi Saitoh) works for his father Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara), the owner and chef at a popular Japanese ramen shop. Masato’s Singaporean mother Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw) died years ago, before she could teach her son about the food of her country. Kazuo tries to keep the memory of his wife alive through his ramen dishes, but when Kazuo unexpectedly dies, this part of Masato’s heritage is lost to him. Masato decides to leave Japan and head to Singapore to learn about the food, especially a pork rib broth made by his uncle Akio (Tetsuya Bessho).
In searching for the food that his mother fed him as a child, with the help of food blogger Miki (Seiko Matsuda), Masato learns the history of Singaporean dishes and how intertwined they are with the culture. Upon meeting his grandmother (Beatrice Chien) for the first time, Masato also sees how distrust between Japan and Singapore still lingers after World War II, and how this clash tore apart his family.
For the most part, Ramen Shop keeps these different ideas separated. First and foremost, Ramen Shop is about the history of the different foods Masato comes across and Singapore, and the film does a fine job presenting how integral these dishes are to the fabric of the country. Integrating the details of the feud between and Japan and Singapore into this story is too late, and when it does happen, it is quite heavy-handed. Yet when the food, family and history all coalesce in the end, the result is as heart-wrenching and sweet as one would hope from such a story.
As wonderful as the history lesson on Singaporean food can be, Ramen Shop feels front loaded with meal after meal, instead of a more even distribution of these meals throughout the film. There’s a good chunk of Ramen Shop that almost feels like an episode of a Food Network show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it does take away from the larger story at hand, especially since many of the meals have nothing to do with Masato’s attempt to recreate the pork rib broth so essential to the core of this story.
Still, Ramen Shop never gets as invested in the food and craft of cooking as films like Tampopo or Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which is odd considering the story centers around perfecting the pork rib broth. Instead, Ramen Shop has too many ingredients that don’t quite hold their own, until the film’s final moments when the abundance of ideas come together to a satisfying conclusion. Ramen Shop isn’t the heartiest meal, but in the end, it certainly is a delightful one.