Chasing Shadows, Looming Doom

It occurred to me recently that my entertainment of late has been largely defined by the cultural outputs of (beside the United States, which naturally dominates the online space) South Korea and Japan. And I’m not just talking about IZ*One. If I’m not at M’s place in Las Pinas, blasting the full discographies of our favorite K-Pop groups and watching Kim tae-ri doing all sorts of badass stuff, I’m probably at home reading a Kobo Abe novel or bowling over the second season of Masaharu Take and company’s The Naked Director.

To be clear, I find nothing about this concerning. My list of favorite directors have long since been invaded by Japanese and Korean names who continue to surprise and delight me with every new output. Who in this world regrets having been introduced to luminaries of the caliber of Park Chan-wook, Bong joon-ho, and Hirokazu Koreeda? Certainly not this guy. But I figured a little diversity was called for. So with my thesis finally completed (I’ll talk about that in a separate post), I figured it’s time to put my evenings to good use by reactivating my Mubi subscription and watching all the best of world cinema.

Below are my reviews of three of these films from last week’s viewing. I’ll admit that the last one is kind of cheating because it’s still a Japanese director (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) but hey, maybe old habits just die hard.

Ramen Shop (2018) dir. Eric Khoo

After my mom passed away I couldn’t sleep without her apron. It smelt of milk and flour and reminded me of her. I wouldn’t let anyone take it away from me even when it was dirty.

I discovered this film through my subscription to Mubi. I wasn’t disappointed. I came for slice of life scenes of cooking (and boy there is quite a lot in this film – absolutely do not watch on an empty stomach), but stayed for the intriguing characters. Eric Khoo has a deft handle on his characterizations.

Ramen Shop centers on Masato (Takumi Saitoh), who after the death of his father, owner of a ramen shop in their home town of Takasaki, Japan, receives the diary of his late mother, a Singaporean, written entirely in Mandarin. With the diary and a collection of old photos taken during his parents halcyon years, he ventures out to Singapore in search of his uncle and grandmother. He is joined by Miki, an older Japanese blogger residing in Singapore. Together, they explore the sights and tastes of Singapore, as Masato gets to reconnect with the culture of the mother he lost in his early childhood.

Masato’s arrival in Singapore

There is so much I love about this film, but what really stands out for me is how Khoo emphasizes the role of food in Asian cultures. When Masato finally reconnects with his uncle, his mother’s younger brother, the uncle teaches him their family recipe for Bak Kut Teh (pork rib soup). Meanwhile, Miki reveals to Masato that his mother had left behind for him her recipes for the food that she used to make for him during his childhood. It now dawns on Masato that he needs to learn these recipes, along with his uncle’s Bak kut teh, for him to be able to preserve his parents’ memories through every dish.

All of this makes for a precious, if stomach-growling, exploration of the oceans and lakes, rivers and roads, that run through Asian identities, a warm family drama that highlights what truly brings families together: good food.

Shangri-La (2021) dir. Isabel Sandoval

… dreaming dreams of alternate skins in parallel lives.

First off, Sandoval writes some damn good poetry. Unfortunately, the poetry was forced into dialogue in an unnecessary (though surprising) narrative frame that only makes the rest of the short film appear awkward and unnatural. Because no one, even in a premeditated romantic scene, would ever talk that way.

The film might have stood better just letting the narrator continue disembodied. Or better yet, ditch the narrative entirely and allow the images to talk for themselves. Sandoval, after all, displays a sure hand with imagery in this nine minute display of writing bravado.

Tokyo Sonata (2008) dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Tokyo Sonata (2008) dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

I had absolutely no idea what I was coming in for when I started watching Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata (2008) on Mubi. Kurosawa, known as a master of horror and apocalyptic unease, gives us a fresh – if not off the rails – take on the domestic drama with this film.

The film begins ordinarily enough: Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) loses his job after his company downsizes the administrative department for cheaper labor in China. Rather than admit this to his family, he begins on a long act of deception that has him continuing to go out during his usual hours in full salaryman attire, looking for alternative employment in an economy badly hit by recession, lining up for free food at a handout stall for the homeless.

Meanwhile, his older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) decides to join the military, and younger Kenji (Kai Inowaki) begins to have problems at school. As his deceit puts him on a downward spiral, his wife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) has to keep the role of the mother desperately trying to keep the family together.

But Kurosawa has other plans with the film beyond the domestic matters. After the first hour, the movie quickly descends down a manic slope as the Ryuhei’s family begins to crumble. Kurosawa gives the domestic drama a breath of fresh air with an insane turn of events that, somehow, still manages to glue the narrative towards a coherent, if uneasy and pessimistic, conclusion.

Also worth mentioning is Kurosawa’s genius at pacing and blocking. Scenes are acted craftily, with characters moving about rooms and hallways with evident, narrative purpose. During a confrontation scene, when Megumi finally reveals her knowledge of Ryuhei’s unemployment, she towers over her husband for one short moment of triumph. Even the subtle, most ordinary sound of trains running down tracks (the Sasaki household stands right next to a train line) becomes leitmotif that signals each depressing milestone in the family’s descent.

Overall, Tokyo Sonata has got to be my favorite among this week’s Mubi picks. It’s got everything I love in a story, be it on screen or the page: doom and gloom, unhinged characters, and the foreboding sense that despite our best efforts, everything is fucked.

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