Monday, January 9, 2012

REVIEW: Chef of the South Pole

南極料理人 (Omoshiro Nankyoku Ryurinin)

Released: 2009

Shuichi Okita

Masato Sakai
Kosuke Toyohara
Katsuhisa Namase
Kengo Kora

Running time: 125 Min

Reviewed by Eric Evans

Imagine a Bizarro-world version of John Carpenter's "The Thing" without the shapeshifting alien monster. Now imagine that there is still a threat to the scientific team in Antarctica, but that threat is running out of ramen noodles and you're halfway to "The Chef of the South Pole", a character-rich comedy from first-time director Shuichi Okita (who co-wrote with former Navy chef Jun Nishimura, the film's titular character). The film describes the tour of duty of a young husband and father who, through no fault and certainly no desire of his own, finds himself cooking for a small scientific team in Antarctica. What kind of mischief can eight Japanese men get up to, living in close quarters for nearly 14 months? Alternately described in the press as an ensemble comedy and as a foodie film a la "Like Water For Chocolate", "Chef" is both of those things and sometimes more.

Nishimura (Masato Sakai) is a career Navy chef with a convivial home life. Wife Miyuki (Naomi Nishida) and daughter Yuka (Karin Ono) alternately tease and ignore him with loving familiarity. This quiet happiness is disrupted with a sudden yearlong assignment at Dome Fuji Station, an Antarctic outpost so remote and in a climate so unforgiving that not even penguins venture to visit. Here he prepares daily meals for the seven other team members, introduced through their idiosyncratic and increasingly peculiar behavior: surly scientist (Katsuhisa Namase), lighthearted doctor (Kosuke Toyohara), mercurial chief (Kitaro), lovelorn lab assistant (Kengo Kora), and so on. The men spend their days doing their work largely isolated from one another, but together at mealtimes; the dining table the only territory they all share. Eight men adjusting to life in isolated, cramped quarters leads to a number of annoyances that strain social convention to comic effect. Isolation can change you, the film posits, but the comforts of a lovingly prepared meal can provide a tether to reality. Of sorts.

During the first week of the 14-month term, team members are up bright and early, assembled in the main quarters for daily calisthenics before breakfast. (These morning exercises consist of the group halfheartedly following along to VHS tapes of three leotard-clad women doing light aerobics while grinning and leering at the screen. Typical conversation: "what color are they wearing today?") Their first meals together—mannered and civil—establish a benchmark against which we measure subsequent meals, wherein we watch them devolve into unkempt, shaggy, occasionally hostile eccentrics. How eccentric? One is found crouching in a feral squat on the kitchen floor gnawing at a brick of butter; another locks himself away in his room, pulling a weeklong hikikomori act when the ramen noodle supply expires. These behavioral changes are measured in alternately baffled and disgusted looks on Sakai's expressive face, the subtlety of which sells the laughs in no small part. This chef is patient, dedicated, and skilled, and cares deeply about his daily menu's quality and diversity. The same cannot be said about his patrons, whose taste and sometimes boorish behavior leave him quietly aghast. Discovery of a crate of frozen lobster creates team demand for lobster tempura, despite his gentle suggestion that there are better ways to enjoy the luxury; late-night noises coming from his pristine kitchen lead to his discovery of unauthorized fridge-raids and makeshift ramen parties. To any chef this might be disturbing, never mind the strict food and water rationing necessary at the bottom of the world. Chef Nishimura responds to these—indeed, most—episodes with a measured curiosity. How can he feed these men so that they are left happy and satisfied?

While no answer is forthcoming, the camera lovingly follows the chef's food preparation and presentation. The meals are much more elaborate and upscale than any sequestered scientist should expect. (Note to viewers: do not watch on an empty stomach.) The slight, tight smile on Sakai's face as he watches the group tuck into his meals is the only outward sign of his satisfaction. That the team isn't astonished by the food on display, better and better day after day, is part of the joke. Audiences will audibly gasp and smack their lips at the film's spreads, and the noodle making sequence is all but a how-to tutorial.

Okita's film doesn't have the steadiness of tone necessary to elevate "Chef" into greatness. There is silliness, yet none of the abandon a young Juzo Itami might have brought to the material. But there's still much to enjoy. The episodic structure and tonal shifts lend emotion and gravity to some scenes and render others lightweight and punchy, approximating the rhythm of that much time passing in eight lives. At just over 2 hours "Chef" feels slightly long but there are plenty of laughs, some immediate and some with a slow burn. The cast has no weak links but Sakai, Kitaro, and Toyohara invest their characters with warmth and personality. Some critics suggest that Sakai is the finest Japanese actor of his generation, and here he fascinates and amuses with his restraint. For every outburst-worthy trespass he conjures a new facial expression of quiet bewilderment. It's a choice that leaves the viewer guessing what will happen next, and as such "Chef" is less predictable than many comedies.

The real-life chef Nishimura wrote two autobiographical novels based on his experiences cooking at the South Pole, hinting that there was a good deal of truth to even the more outrageous sequences. It feels like there's a lot more story left untold; perhaps a TV series could be spun from the source material? In any case, for a film so observant of food it's more of a lightweight lunch than a gourmet meal, but the performances and dry laughs make it worth a look. "Chef" is appropriate for all audiences; it's been screened at embassy events as well as festivals. Smaller kids might be occasionally bored, but it's a fine film to show friends who aren't familiar with Japanese dry humor, or J-cinema outside of samurai classics and kaiju flicks.

"Chef of the South Pole" is being shown as part of the Northwest Film Center's annual "Japanese Currents" program alongside such other contemporary titles as "Haru's Journey" and "Caterpillar". It's a good example of the NW Film Center's commitment to introducing the Portland community to the diversity of modern Japanese film.

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