Interview with 'Ramen Shop' director Eric Khoo on family, forgiveness, and food

(Credit: mk2 Films)

(Credit: mk2 Films)

Ramen Shop (or ‘Ramen Teh’ in Singapore), the latest international feature film about ramen really reflects its global perspective by all accounts. For starters, it was co-produced by teams in Singapore, Japan, and France. Careful listeners will also note that dialogue occurs in Japanese, English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

Eric Khoo, Singapore’s best-known director, tells a touching tale about family, forgiveness, and, of course, food. The story follows Masato (played by Takumi Saito), a young Japanese ramen chef who sets out to retrace the culinary history of his family after his father’s sudden death.

Set in Japan and Singapore - both famous for being absolute food Meccas - the film highlights two of those nations’ iconic dishes, ramen and bak kut teh, and brings them together in a bold way that drives the plot forward. It’s a powerful testament to the power of taste memory and food as a vehicle for forging bonds across cultures and generations. “It is the combination of two of my favorite childhood foods,” Eric admits. “On top of that, I also think that food is a unifying force. It has the power to bring people together under the most mysterious circumstances."

Singaporean ramen chef Keisuke Takeda was tapped to bring the namesake ramen teh recipe to life. Ramen Shop’s stateside premiere was March 22 (coincidentally enough, my birthday!), 2019 and is currently making its way across the United States. Read on for my exclusive interview with Eric Khoo. And for Ramentality readers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia find giveaway instructions at the bottom of the page to win a pair of tickets to a local screening!

...food is a unifying force. It has the power to bring people together under the most mysterious circumstances.

JL: How did you decide to direct Ramen Shop?

EK: I was approached by producer Yutaka Tachibana who wanted to do a co pro between Japan and Singapore to celebrate the 50 years of friendship between the two countries. As I’m a big fan of Japan and her cuisine I suggested that we make a food film.

(Credit: mk2 films)

(Credit: mk2 films)

JL: What was your vision for Ramen Shop after reviewing the script?

EK: We created the premise together and decided to cook the dish first before writing the script as we wanted to be sure that it would taste good. We were literally creating a new dish that had never been tested before. It tasted fabulous so I roped in Wong Kim Hoh who had previously helped with some of my other scripts and Tan Fong Cheng to work on the screenplay.

JL: Why were ramen and bak kut teh - two very famous national dishes - chosen to metaphorically come together in this film? Why not two other dishes?

EK: I have happy childhood memories with Bah Kut Teh as I used to eat it virtually every other weekend with my family. I love its broth and when I discovered ramen years later I felt the two dishes were somewhat related.

JL: What was your biggest challenge in directing Ramen Shop?

EK: The script was written in English and had to be translated into Japanese and when that happens a lot will be lost in translation. I also wanted the characters to be uniquely Japanese so it was fabulous that my cast could workshop the dialogue during our rehearsals. They knew their characters very well and brought them to life for me. During the shoot we had all their improvised dialogue in the final draft and I’d be watching out for their performance and not being proficient in Japanese I trusted them with all my heart and they delivered brilliantly.

JL: What was your favorite part of directing Ramen Teh? Any memorable anecdotes?

(Credit: mk2 Films)

(Credit: mk2 Films)

As Takumi is an extremely sensitive actor and a very talented director we got along really well and we connected on an instinctive level. Some of the moments in our film were not scripted and came to be on a spontaneous level.

JL: I was pleasantly surprised to find that ramen played a less prominent role against the film’s themes of reconciliation. And that so many other dishes are highlighted in this film (fish head curry, laksa, chicken rice, chili crab) - was this a deliberate choice?

EK: As I’m a champion for Singaporean food I decided to showcase as much of our delicious dishes as possible!

JL: So much of what moves the story forward are the actors’ expressions, the score, as well as the flashbacks. How were you able to convey so much, especially when those scenes didn’t have much dialogue?

EK: They were wonderful at emoting and I spent several months working on the score with composer Kevin Mathews and discussing the shots with my Dop, Brian Gothong Tan. We very much wanted for these moments to be very heartfelt.

As I’m a champion for Singaporean food I decided to showcase as much of our delicious dishes as possible!

JL: What is something you hope to leave the viewer with after they watch Ramen Teh?

EK: To reconnect and to forgive as life is short. To cherish deeply life and family.

JL: Singapore is your hometown, do you have a must-try dish that you recommend to visitors?

Bah kut teh!

JL: What kind of ramen is your favorite at the moment?

EK: Ramen Teh cooked by Keisuke! He has outlets in Japan and Singapore and also has a cameo in our film.

JL: Do you have a favorite ramen shop anywhere in the world?

EK: The Shoyu ramen at Mutahiro in Tokyo.

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‘RAMEN SHOP’ MOVIE TICKET GIVEAWAY

I’m partnering with Landmark Theatres to give away a pair of tickets to see ‘Ramen Shop’ for Ramentality readers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Minneapolis, Boston, and Atlanta!

GIVEAWAY INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Follow me on Instagram (@ramenwriter) and email subscribe to Ramentality.
2. On my most recent Instagram post, tag a friend to see ‘Ramen Shop’ with, tell me which city you want tickets for, and share with me your favorite ramen shop in the comments — I’d love to know!

Winners will be randomly selected and notified for each city on Sunday, April 21st.