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Friday, Feb. 11, 2011

'Yogashiten Koan do Ru (Patisserie Coin de Rue)'

Sometimes-sweet Tokyo cake story proves just a little too sickly

The Japanese foodie movie is an offshoot of the gurume (gourmet) boom of the 1980s bubble years. Back then, urban trendies began exploring the farther reaches of French cuisine, expense be damned — or as Juzo Itami's seminal foodie movie "Tampopo" (1985) comically examined, obsessing over the perfect bowl of ramen.

Yogashiten Koan do Ru (Patisserie Coin de Rue) Rating: (2.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Tasteless: Yogashiten Koan do Ru (Patisserie Coin de Rue) is the latest in a line of Japanese food movies, but lacks good ingredients. © 2010 "YOGASHITEN COIN DE RUE" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Yoshihiro Fukagawa
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Feb. 11, 2011)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In recent years, the foodie movie has truly come into its own as a local subgenre, with the list including last year's "Soup Opera" and "Shokudo Katatsumuri (Rinco's Restaurant)," as well as the 2009 "Nonchan Noriben (Noriben — The Recipe for Fortune)," the 2008 "Shiawase no Kaori (Flavor of Happiness)" and the film that started the current boomlet, Naoko Ogigami's 2006 "Kamome Shokudo (Kamome Diner)." All feature heroines who find their raison d'e^tre in the kitchen, whether or not they make their living as cooks. All show shot after scrumptious shot of food, usually of the soul-satisfying rather than the haute cuisine variety.

Yoshihiro Fukagawa's "Yogashiten Koan do Ru (Patisserie Coin de Rue)" is the latest in this quickly lengthening cinematic buffet line — and checks off all of its cliches, which may be just fine if you think of the foodie movie the way you think of, say, your favorite soba place. Tasty once, tasty twice, no? In my case, no.

This film about a Kyushu girl who comes to Tokyo to find a missing boyfriend and ends up making fancy French pastries has plenty of drama, with the ever-game Yu Aoi, as the heroine, providing most of the righteous rages and sun-beamy smiles. But all of Aoi's charming exertions can't make up for the by-the-numbers story. "Patisserie Coin de Rue" is the movie equivalent of a set menu.

Aoi plays Natsume, a native of Kagoshima on a quixotic quest for the aforementioned boyfriend, who threw in his job at an upscale Toyko patisserie called Coin de Rue and dropped out of sight. The shop's tart-tongued head pa^tissier (Keiko Toda) tells her to take a hike, but minus connections or money, Natsume needs a job — and returns to the shop to ask for one.

Confident of her skills — she was raised in a cake shop — Natsume is devastated when her prospective employer says her test cake is no good. But she wangles a job anyway — and begins an arduous apprenticeship. (Is there any other kind in this sort of movie?)

A hard worker and eager learner, Natsume receives encouragement from an elegant elderly regular (Mariko Kaga), but a cranky shop senior (Noriko Eguchi) gives her grief. Her ultimate challenge, however, is Tomura (Yosuke Eguchi), a former pa^tissier at Coin de Rue who is now a freelance pastry critic. A moody master of the art, with a dark, mysterious past, he looms large in her imagination. Then one fateful day, he tries one of her creations. Will he like it — or proclaim it a disaster?

From here, anyone who has seen any Japanese foodie flick or zero-to-hero movie knows how the story will play out. You can be sure, for starters, that Natsume will gut it out, Tomura's past will be revealed and, by the credit crawl, you will either be thoroughly sick of pastry money shots, or dying to stuff your face with tarts.

A versatile actress with a "natural girl" image, Aoi energizes any scene she happens to be in, with none of the annoying chirp and flutter of the genki (cheerful) idol type. She even mastered the Kagoshima dialect for the role, which is somewhat like a London-bred actor boning up on Welsh. So give her an "A" for effort — and for making the film at least bearable, if still predictable.

As Tomura, Eguchi does the usual tortured-artist turn, though in his later scenes, he unfurrows his brow and shows a more relaxed, likable face.

Fukagawa, who not long ago was making smartly observed, offbeat indie films such as 2005's "Okami Shojo (When the Show Tent Came to My Town)" and 2008's "Makiguri no Ana (Peeping Tom)," has since settled into a more commercial groove, while losing whatever was distinctive about his directorial personality.

"Patisserie Coin de Rue" is like a cake in a chain-shop window: It looks lovingly hand-crafted, until you peek behind the counter and see dozens like it in a box. It's hardly flavorless, but how will you feel after consuming a dozen, each indistinguishable from the next? Waiter, I'm starting to feel sick.

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