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Friday, March 17, 2006

Food for the soul in Helsinki

Kamome Shokudo

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Naoko Ogigami
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: Japanese and Finnish (subtitles in Japanese)
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Don't we all have the urge to chuck it all in, hop on a plane and fly to the Great Good Place, where we'd live in peace and contentment forever -- or until our cards max out? This urge is particularly strong in urban Japan, where images of tropical islands beckon from fliers at street-corner travel agencies or posters in crowded commuter trains, and where the racks at the neighborhood bookstores are crammed with travel guides offering ultimate getaways that ultimately require more time and money than the average punter can afford.

News photo
From left: Masako Motai, Satomi Kobayashi and Hairi Katagiri in "Kamome Shokudo"

As Naoko Ogigami's "Kamome Shokudo (The Sea Gull Restaurant)" demonstrates so winningly and enticingly, there are those lucky few who live the dream -- or rather their best approximation of it. Her film about three women, all single and past 30, who find new lives and each other in Helsinki is not another you-go-girl celebration of female empowerment, however.

Like the films of Finland's Aki Kaurismaki that Ogigami so obviously admires, it is instead more of an engagingly perceptive essay on the basics of existence -- food, friendship, work, love, home. It gives us glimpses of the tourist's Finland, including the gulls circling Helsinki harbor, but its usual perspective is intimate and everyday. We see far more of the interior of the title restaurant than the outside world, but then so do its three main characters.

For those used to the more common panoramic-famous-views approach of Japanese films set in foreign lands, "Kamome Shokudo" may start to feel claustrophobic. Even I, no travelogue fan, started to long for a long shot or two. But Ogigami, a former student of the University of Southern California film school, whose 2003 feature debut, "Barber Yoshino," was screened at the Berlin Film festival, knows exactly what she is doing and why. Patterns and motifs that at first look cutesy or mundane begin -- through repetition and expansion -- to acquire resonance and weight.

The gulls in the harbor, seen in shot after shot, end up being more than feathered bits of local color. They come to resemble the three heroines -- free spirits who, after much wandering, have found a home.

The proprietor of the title establishment is Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi), a spunky, forthright type who wants to bring home-style Japanese cooking to Finland. But she gets only skeptical looks from passersby, particularly a trio of middle-aged women who serve as a comic Greek chorus. She perseveres, however, and finally a teenage boy (Jarkko Niemi) shuffles into her small, spotless eatery and reveals himself as a speaker of (very limited) Japanese and a fan of anime, especially Gatchaman. Does Sachie, he wonders, know the lyrics to the Gatchaman theme song? Sachie, to her embarrassment, does not.

That evening in a bookshop cafe, she encounters Midori (Hairi Katagiri), a tall, gawky woman with a perpetually startled look, who happens to know the words of the stupid song that has been plaguing Sachie all day. Relieved, Sachie asks her new acquaintance why she has come to Finland. Midori tells her one day she closed her eyes, jabbed a finger at a world map -- and it landed on the Land of a Thousand Lakes. Feeling she has found a kindred spirit, Sachie asks the hotel-less Midori if she would like to stay at her place. Soon, Midori is waitressing at the restaurant, though her only customer is the boy, who comes in every day for free coffee and a dose of Japanese culture.

One afternoon another customer (Markku Peltola) walks in -- a big, shambling man with a knowing look who shows Sachie how to brew the perfect cup of coffee -- then walks out the door, seemingly never to return. This brief encounter, however, works a magical change in the restaurant's fortunes. Attracted by the aroma of the coffee and Sachie's mouth-watering cinnamon buns, customers trickle in, including the Greek Chorus.

Then another Japanese woman appears on the scene -- the bespectacled, polite, decidedly eccentric Masako (Masako Motai), stranded in Helsinki, her luggage having gone missing. Sachie and Midori soon have another hand in the kitchen, whipping up scrumptious omusubi (rice balls), or as Sachie calls it, "Japanese soul food."

As far as drama goes, there isn't a lot more. A plump, frowzy woman, after glaring through the restaurant's window day after day (and scaring the impressionable Midori half to death), lumbers through the door and, through a chain of events I won't describe here, finally forces the trio to leave their island of Japanese-ness to encounter the Finnish world around them.

It is bit too cozy, this island, with a slightly complacent air of spreading Japanese culture to the natives. But it is real enough in its feeling of freedom and loneliness -- the crown and thorns of expatriation.

Toward the end, Ogigami takes the story to another, surreal level. Nothing outlandish -- just an overt, liberating expression of the magic that had been there all along, in the hearts of its three heroines and their new home. Maybe it's something in the water -- or the omusubi.

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