Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Udon (2006)

Eat your heart out, KF Seetoh!

It seems Singapore's cinema distributors are having a fever on area films this season. You know, ones that are set in rural provinces culturally distinct from the larger nation, like how Forbidden Siren and Nada Sou Sou are Okinawa area films set against the wider Japanese culture. If you like, it's entirely possible and appropriate to consider Udon as another area movie, this time from Kagawa. While not as poor as Okinawa, the prefecture is the smallest in Japan, and largely rural. A little bit of a backwater, one might say, which might explain why Kosuke, the protagonist of Udon, like the contestants from Battle Royale (also set in Kagawa prefecture), has this frightfully huge chip on his shoulder, the whole "boy must move out of small town or die doing so" thing. It's actually understandable - would you want to grow up, work and die in a rural place that's only famous for its udon, and the fact that it has more udon stalls for every person that Tokyo city has MacDonald's eateries for its denizens? You'll have to concede the point then.

But you will see, as does an embarrassed Kosuke when his long-life dream of making it as a stand-up comic in New York turns to ashes, that perhaps there is something about udon, after all. You might be surprised (or maybe not): in a town where udon is the only industry, cultural landmark and feature of note, the monolithic stature of udon, conjoined with how there is nothing else for natives to do, leads strangely enough to the invisibility of udon on television, newspapers, leisure and lifestyle magazines. Forced to join a restaurant magazine, Kosuke and his directionally-challenged editor Kyoko strike on what I call the KF Seetoh idea: visit, catalogue and review every udon stall in Kagawa, like an udon fanatic on a wild pilgrimage. Given that there are no food courts (or udon courts?) in Kagawa, the rest, as they say, is history as hordes of food fanatics descend onto the island province on wild pilgrimages to savour the ultimate udon stall (or all of them).

It's straightforward enough as comedy material, but what really aces it for this film is its execution. It's filmmed in what a faux documentary style I'd call "unreality dramedy" - think the opposite of a reality drama. It's not quite the expected straight-laced making of udon documentary or even the cheeky KF Seetoh "search for a great foodie place" narrative. These are fun in themselves, but the makers of Udon have a different story that they really want to tell, which is the creation and rise of a food fad, the life cycle of an irrational national exuberance for udon. Hence, everything that you'd expect to watch in a movie called Udon is here, but thrown at you with a top-volley spin. The slow discovery of the udon stalls and their individual styles by the magazine team is there, but is merely part of a story that has sequences of out of control tourists, hilarious sketches with udon otakus, idiosyncratic udon owners, over the top cooking segments, and even an incredibly absurd low-budget Bayside Shakedown meets tokusatsu "Captain Udon" superhero gag.

The humour, as you can guess, is equal parts slapstick and irony, but never mean satire. However the movie skews its subjects, you will laugh knowing that this is good-natured humour, part tender teasing of food fanatics, part celebration of food, part self-deprecating homage to one's hometown. You'd expect a comedy like this to either go over the top to celebrate udon, Singapore comedy style, or for the satirical bits to be a bit too pungent. However, it seems that the director and makers of Udon find the right balance, mostly through the deliberately cheesey style that normalises the absurd instead of mocking it. It's the same way how the music from Bizet's Carmen accompanies most of the comic sequences and montages in the movie. It's not a mock heroism or a mocking of empty heroism, but a screwball valorisation of the mundane that's become quite the fashion nowadays in some Japanese comedy variety shows.

In a way, this brilliant comedy is something that you don't expect the director of Bayside Shakedown to achieve (aside from the lengthy runtime), but this style has far more in common with the comedy troupe The Rahmens, whose presence in this movie goes beyond their casting. Like their youtube sketch How to eat Sushi, this comedy is a fine example of how to celebrate food and poke fun of the oddities in its customs without being mean, but without losing the sharp insights either.

Of course, by the end of the film, you'll not only have laughed several wrinkles off your face, but you would, like Kosuke, find out the heart of real Udon cuisine!

First published at incinemas on 17 May 2007

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