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Friday, Oct. 10, 2008

'Shiawase no Kaori'

Tasty performances spice up a tired genre


Here's an obvious but often neglected rule: Never see foodie movies — films that revolve around the preparation and consumption of scrumptious-looking food — on an empty stomach. Watching Gabriel Axel's Oscar-winning Danish movie "Babette's Feast" (1987) — the "Citizen Kane" of foodie movies — long after a skimpy breakfast, I was in agony, though somehow able to restrain myself from bolting the screening room. Soon after the credits rolled, though, I had one of the most heavenly bowls of ramen I ever tasted. (In my starved condition, I would have said the same thing about a Big Mac.)

Shiawase no Kaori Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Cinematic feast: Tatsuya Fuji (left) and Miki Nakatani in "Shiawase no Kaori" © 2008 "SHIAWASE NO KAORI" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Mitsuhiro Mihara
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 11, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Mitsuhiro Mihara's "Shiawase no Kaori (Flavor of Happiness)" does not rank as high as "Babette's Feast" in my foodie movie list. Perhaps I've been jaded by the endless procession of Japanese TV shows, dramas and films devoted to food and its preparers, which are part of a three-decade "gourmet boom" that shows no sign of ending.

The cults that have grown up around ramen, gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and other Japanese comfort foods strike me as overblown. The difference between a good and a great bowl of noodles is like the difference between a good and great hamburger — noticeable, but not worth waiting two hours in line for.

Mihara's hero, Wan (Tatsuya Fuji), is a crusty, closed-mouth cook at a small Chinese restaurant — a personality type thoroughly familiar from all the above shows, series and films. Wan, however, is an immigrant from Shaoxing, a city not far from Shanghai, which sets him apart from not only his surroundings in provincial Kanazawa Prefecture, but also the usual run of Japanese TV and movie chefs. Instead of the above-mentioned comfort food, Wan specializes in simple, but deliciously addictive lunch specials for a close-knit circle of regulars.

Mihara, a gourmet himself, films Wan's productions with the ultracareful attention to lighting and presentation found in glossy lifestyle magazines. He and his collaborators, including cinematographer Aiko Ashizawa and lighting director Masao Kanazawa, make a tomato-and-egg stir-fry look like the height of culinary art. And from the delighted reactions of the customers at Wan's eatery, called Little Shanghai, the visuals only seem to be telling the mouthwatering truth.

A local department store decides to approach Wan about opening an in-store branch — and dispatches Takako (Miki Nakatani), a pretty thirtysomething staffer. Takako, who is raising a daughter alone after her husband's death, is determined to close the deal but Wan gives her the brushoff. Undiscouraged, she comes back to the restaurant every day, tastes everything on the menu and loves it. (She lights up as if her soul is getting a burst of pure, homey pleasure.) But Wan refuses to listen to her proposal — he wants to see the people he feeds, he says.

Then Wan collapses with a minor stroke that leaves him unable to work. Takako begs him to take her on as an apprentice, so that his cooking will live on. Wan, who has no wife or heir, agrees. He sees Takako not just as a successor but as a kindred spirit whose love for good food approaches his own. A more personal reason surfaces as the story progresses: Takako becomes the daughter he once had, but lost.

This is not the happy ending, however, but the start of grueling trials that test Takako's mettle and resolve, if not her affection for Wan. Most of them, as you might expect, involve food.

Mihara, who also wrote the script, directs "Shiawase" with more delicacy and restraint than the genre's overwrought standards, though he adds at least one tear-jerking complication too many and turns Wan, a small-town cook, into a local celebrity when he finally returns home to Shaoxing.

Nakatani, who won a slew of awards, including Best Actress at the Awards of the Japanese Academy for her portrayal of the luckless heroine in "Kiraware Matsuko no Issho (Memories of Matsuko)" (2006) plays Takako with a dark, lonely intensity, as though she were on the verge of a breakdown — or a breakthrough. She doesn't strain for grand effects, as though she were shooting for another Japan Academy Award. Instead, she adds humanizing touches, such as Takako's comic wrestling with a heavy wok, that make the character more appealing and less tightly wound.

Fuji, a veteran who has played everything from cops and gangsters to the obsessed lover in Nagisa Oshima's erotic classic "Ai no Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses)" (1976), expresses Wan's loneliness with every word and gesture while never overdoing it. In portraying everything from Wan's accent to his gestures and attitudes, he avoids the usual stereotyping. Back in China, his Wan is believable both as a native son and an expat who has been away a long, long time.

Do a Wan and Takako exist out there in the real world, cooking up culinary masterpieces for the masses? "Shiawase" makes me want to believe so, if not wait in line two hours to find out.


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