It’s hard to turn on the television these days without someone telling you how to cook. Buoyed by the wave of success that shows such as MasterChef and Japan’s own Iron Chef, celebrity and amateur cooking has become popular across the globe. The reasons are not difficult to fathom: all humans, in one way or another, have to eat at some stage. However, as recent documentaries like Food, Inc. have demonstrated, the manufacture and delivery of food has changed more in the last half-century than in all of recorded history. The art of cooking is a complex beast, but it is still an art that most feel they can master in a lifetime.
In Flavor of Happiness (しあわせのかおり), Chinese-born Wang Qingkuo (Tatsuya Fuji, from erotic masterpiece In the Realm of the Senses) owns and operates a restaurant called Little Shanghai, and the food is so good that it has caught the attention of a big-city department store. They send Yamashita Takako (Miki Nakatani, Zero Focus, Ring 2) down to convince Wang to allow them to sell his food through their store. Wang adamantly refuses, but Takako is persistent. She begins to visit Little Shanghai every day, soon forgetting her primary job and becoming obsessed with the food Wang serves. However, Wang collapses through stress and overwork, and is left partially paralysed as a result. Takako is determined not to let Wang’s excellent cooking fade away, and quits her job to learn the art of cooking and help restore Little Shanghai to its glory.
Let’s be honest: a fair chunk of this film is food porn. The often fetishistic approach to food making and preparation is taken to extremes, with lingering close-ups of some of the most mouth-watering collections of appetizers and main dishes you will ever see in one place. Yet this is only one of the reasons that this film will connect with audiences. In the session I was at, crowds cooed and awwed their way through a fairly lengthy running time, completely captivated by one woman’s passion to achieve mastery of this seemingly simple but infinitely nuanced profession.
The relative (perhaps deceptively) simple storyline is strengthened by the cast of two fantastic leads. Tatsuya Fuji’s gruff chef seems to be channeling the great Toshiro Mifune as he barks orders and obstinately refuses to let his paralysis completely cripple him. Balancing this out, like a sweet flavour compliments a harsh earthy one in a good meal, is Miki Nakatani. Having appeared in three Ringu films, Nakatani has proven that she is more than just a scream queen in some of the more interesting and diverse films of the last few years, including Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s (20th Century Boys) Happily Ever After, Japanese Film Festival 2010 program buddy Zero Focus and the multiple award-winning Memories of Matsuko. Here she is the right mixture of enthusiastic and mildly troubled, masking some past disturbances that are only hinted at throughout the film.
Flavor of Happiness is a pure joy from start to finish. The master-apprentice genre may seem a little played out at this late stage in the game, but everything about the Flavor of Happiness makes it seem fresh and new again. There will be no surprises in the final course of the film, but like cooking a feast, half the pleasure is in the preparation.
NB: In the interests of community service: before you even step foot in the cinema, make sure you do so on a full stomach. The sumptuous feasts on display will cause a collective rumbling of stomachs and the pooling of drool around one’s ankles. It would be hard to tell with most cinema floors though.
Flavor of Happiness is playing at the 14th Japanese Film Festival nationally. It is due to play again at Melbourne on 3 December 2010.