Jimami Tofu (Japan/Singapore, 2017) [CAAMFest 2018]

Jimami is the Okinawan dialect word for peanut and jimami tofu is a simple but much-loved speciality of the island. This is one of the ingredients that Singaporean directors Jason Chan and Christian Lee use to cook up a tale of history, lost love, and fusion cooking with varying results.

The story follows Ryan (played by Chan), a Chinese Singaporean chef learning to make traditional Okinawan food through apprenticing with a crotchety old chef named Sakumoto (Masane Tsukayama). Ryan finds it hard to fit into the community but the place and some of the people are beautiful, especially Nami (Rino Nakasone), a ceramacist who is sweet on him but he has a certain sourness due to a past relationship that prevents him from tasting the delights of his present surroundings. Meanwhile, over in Singapore, a Japanese woman named Yuki (Mari Yamamoto) works as a food critic for a magazine. Her sophisticated senses of taste and smell lead to sharply-worded reviews that make or break restaurants and she has earned a fierce reputation based on spicy words she writes after she tears into some of the finest cuisine that South East Asia has to offer. However, beneath her perfect shell is a bitter past that is connected to Ryan.

The audience find out more about what happened to make them that way through a series of neatly handled flashbacks to happier times in their lives that show everything is inextricably linked to cooking. Certain incidents, some stretching back decades for one of the two, led to a painful breakup and Ryan’s efforts in cooking set in motion a sort of redemption arc as the characters face their guilt over what happened.

This is how the film avoids being overly sweet. By having Yuki and Ryan be genuinely unlikeable, their personalities congealed thanks to a degree of self-doubt and past experiences that are annunciated by flashbacks that dive deeper into Yuki’s story, which is mixed together with that of other characters in Okinawa. The drama that arises with these people is made to be more affecting through food film tropes, which are utilised to bring a lingering emotional aftertaste to the present-tense narrative.

Food and its preparation are used to evoke memories of happier times filled with the tenderness and care that both the person making and receiving the meal will feel at the moment and remember long after. In this context, the seemingly simple jimami tofu comes to represent something greater and more complex than Ryan’s attempts at learning to cook and this proves to be where the emotional meat of the film lies, leading the narrative to a heart-warming resolution complete with recipe book acting as a love letter to days gone by as well as a legacy. Indeed, flashbacks to community memories prove really beautiful at times and adding sentimental resonance. This works better than the romantic element of the film.

The love triangle feels a little undercooked because Jason Chan doesn’t sell his role as a passionate chef who women fall in love with. He often speaks in a monotone and there is often a lack of expressiveness in his face and body. He has good self-control and the lines are there but exchanges with characters sometimes lack chemistry so the romantic subplot doesn’t quite come to a boil. His female leads do a good job to fill in the gaps. Rino Nakasone, a dance choreographer who works with pop acts around the world, brings a physical expressiveness to the film that is easy to enjoy, and Mari Yamamoto does well which is important because her character’s journey gives the film emotional heft that will bring a tear to the eye. Also good is Masane Tsukayama as the old chef who reveals that cooking can be the heart and soul of a community.

If the acting doesn’t quite hit the spot, the rest of the film is almost flawlessly presented to emphasise the beauty of Okinawa. Jason Chan takes the lion’s share of visual and musical credit as cinematographer, colourist, and the composer of the score. Aside from some choppy editing, everything is handsomely lensed as befits a film shot with support from Okinawa’s film and tourism organisations. Okinawa looks stunning with dramatic clifftop scenes framed by a dusk sky blending gold and amber, while walks along beaches and old forts with narration serve as a series of touristic highlights of the island’s beautiful landscape. The visuals also put just enough emphasis on the cooking. While there are not that many saliva-inducing shots of food, the sights of restaurants and potted histories of certain dishes provide a good sense of food culture. More importantly for the narrative, there are shots of people being brought together to enjoy food that show how it can build a community.

Jimami Tofu is only the second feature from Chan and Lee’s BananaMana production house, which is focused on creating English-language Asian content for global distribution, and it shows plenty of promise. By bleding a tale of lovelorn adults with a handsomely lensed, food orientated tourist advert for Okinawa, they’ve succeeded in serving an easily enjoyable cinematic confection.

Jimami Tofu is showing at CAAMFest 2018 on May 11 and 12.