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Friday, Jan. 14, 2011

'Soul Kitchen'

Too many cultures spoil the broth? Not in this kitchen


German-born Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin has made a rapid climb up the ladder of cinema success: three major award wins in six short years including "Head On" (2004) and the dark, soulful "Edge of Heaven" (2007). Issues of immigration, ethnic diversity and the conflicts that rise from Eastern tradition vs. Western assimilation are the pillars of his stories — and though the viewer will walk away spiritually sated and completely impressed, Akin's is not the sort of fare to invite laughter.

Soul Kitchen Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Taste buddies: The cast of left-field comedy "Soul Kitchen."

Director: Fatih Akin
Running time: 99 min.
Language: German and Greek (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Jan. 22, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Which is why "Soul Kitchen" comes as somewhat of a jolt. Here we were, expecting anguished tears and heavy philosophizing on the plight of the human condition. Instead, we got a Turkish guy with permanently bad hair trying to lift a fridge and slipping a disc.

"Soul Kitchen" was released abroad in 2009 — and perhaps because of its major departure from Akin's usual turf, it didn't get the praise or attention (though well deserved) of its predecessors. According to the production notes, it was conceived in a moment of lightheartedness, when Akin realized that "life is not only about pain and introspection." The feeling here is that he should have such lapses more often.

Akin's flair for comedy is on par with Woody Allen, and like Allen he combines a deftly compiled, airy soundtrack to highlight the chuckles. And the director shows a side of himself that's relaxed and witty and even a little sloppy — if "Soul Kitchen" were a social occasion, it's certainly not the kind where dressed-up guests are seated around a dinner table. More like lounging around the stove with a can of beer while the cook defrosts some frozen french fries.

Speaking of which, "Soul Kitchen" is not a foodie movie, and the camera likes to linger more on the dirty dishes and soiled countertops than actual food presentations. But then, the fare at the titular restaurant in Hamburg is mostly taken out of an ancient freezer and unceremoniously zapped in the microwave or thrown into a vat of bubbling grease, so we're not missing much.

Not that protagonist and Soul Kitchen owner Zinos (a hilarious Adam Bousdoukos) doesn't loves his restaurant — he does! But he revels in grunge like a bear in its lair, and besides, the customers — all locals from the working-class neighborhood — have never had problems with the grub or the grime. Organic? What's that?

On the other hand, Zinos has a hankering for romance, namely in the form of his journalist girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan). She's tall, pasty and so blonde it hurts — the exact visual opposite of the stocky and dark Zinos, which happens to be a prime factor in their relationship. Still, when she up and leaves him for an assignment in China, Zinos decides not to follow (though he goes as far as the airport, clinging to her arm). Truth is, the man just can't tear himself away from Soul Kitchen, and the dingy Hamburg neighborhood.

As soon as Nadine's plane takes off, things start happening in Zinos' life — like his old buddy Thomas (Wotan Wilke Mohring) turning up with an offer of a real-estate joint partnership, but really scheming to take over the restaurant. Or Zinos' ex-con brother Ilias (Moritz Bleibtreu) turning up and asking for a job, and then proceeding to gamble away the restaurant.

In the midst of the crisis, business is booming. On a whim, Zinos has hired an out-of-work three-star chef (Birol Unel) to helm the kitchen and the frozen meatballs have been replaced by artful slices of roast pork, selling as part of a 50 euro course. The regulars are mighty miffed at the change in menu and prices but Soul Kitchen is reborn as Hamburg's hot-spot, where everyone comes to guzzle Greek wine and have sex on the floor until dawn. Groovy.

"Soul Kitchen" is not about food, and it isn't about love. Rather, it's an easygoing, free-flow observation of family, life and human relationships, unfolding against the backdrop of a slice of industrial Hamburg. There's even a certain element of nostalgia at work, as if Akin has a hankering for a time when eating out implied getting dead drunk, stuffing one's face with cholesterol and deep kissing (or more) across the table. Now restaurant behavior has changed dramatically; people are more likely to demand vegan menus, take endless photos of the food and tweet about the service.

Still, the defining factor in "Soul Kitchen," and in Zinos himself, is an indefatigable hope that human nature is human nature, in all its slovenly glory. It just stands to reason that Akin's first name is an anagram of "faith."


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