“Ramen Shop” is a hard film to pin down. Quirky, personal, political and, as its title indicates, culinary, it’s a slow food movement kind of effort, a meandering movie determined to take its own time.
Yet, like a quiet dish with an unexpected spicy kick, “Ramen Shop’s” emotions creep up on you unawares. In fact, the film almost seems to stumble on its emotional content as if it didn’t quite know it was there.
Directed by Eric Khoo, Singapore’s most prominent filmmaker, “Ramen Shop” owes its idiosyncratic qualities partly to the unusual way it was conceptualized, as a film made to commemorate half a century of diplomatic relations between that country and Japan.
“I felt that food would be a perfect vehicle as both countries are crazy about food,” Khoo explains in a director’s note, “and because there are so many stories about food that have moved me.”
And certainly, as appetizingly photographed by Brian Gothong Tan, food has pride of place in the story, with so many delicious-looking dishes flashing by on screen you wish each had an identifier reminding us what they were.
Under the opening credits, for instance, we watch the preparation of a knockout bowl of ramen, the noodle and soup dish that, with some 24,000 ramen shops in business, is a mainstay of Japanese eating.
This particular ramen establishment, in the midsize city of Takasaki (home to an enormous statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, that figures in the plot) is popular enough to have a line of eager eaters outside.
But though the food is tasty, the working atmosphere is not. Top chef Kazuo (Tsuyoshi Ihara) knows his business, but he is mute and non-communicative where his son and culinary collaborator Masato (Takumi Saitoh) is concerned.
“If I was a bowl of ramen,” the son says to his father’s brother, “maybe he’d show more interest in me.”
Masato, for his part, is fascinated by the cuisine of Singapore, the homeland of his late mother Mei Lian (Jeanette Aw.) So interested in fact that he keeps up a digital correspondence with Miki (Seiko Matsuda), a foodie and proprietor of Miki’s Culinary Journey, a blog devoted to the Singapore food scene.
“Ramen Shop” has barely begun when Kazuo dies and Masato impulsively heads off to Singapore, where he lived until he was 10, determined to both connect with his mother’s culture and to learn some great new dishes.
He’s encouraged in his quest by documents found among his father’s belongings, including a photo album and journal kept by his mother in her native Mandarin.
First stop, not surprisingly, is a visit with the charming Miki, who takes him to dinner and regales him with Singapore culinary lore, filling him in, for instance, on the accomplishments of the Four Heavenly Kings, the chefs who dominated the local food scene in the 1960s and ’70s.
Masato is especially interested in bak kut the, a legendary pork rib soup he remembers from his childhood, and which Miki obligingly tells him originated with poor laborers who couldn’t afford actual meat and boiled the bones instead.
In addition to all this foodie material, “Ramen Shop” also functions as a kind of soft-boiled detective story, as Masato attempts to track down Wee (Mark Lee), his chef uncle, and the elusive grandmother (Beatrice Chien) who had some mysterious rift with Masato’s mother that never got resolved.
Given its various parts, the tone of “Ramen Shop” varies widely. Childhood flashbacks of Masato and his mother, verge on being too sweet, as do those showing how his father and mother met and the courtship between them (hint: It involved food).
Yet “Ramen Shop” also has that historical element, detailing what happened in the city when the Japanese occupied Singapore during the Second World War, and tone is very different there.
Helping these various parts fit together is that unexpected emotion. Sentimental and proud of it, “Ramen Shop” believes food is a way of keeping memories alive, and we see it happen before our eyes.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Playing Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles.