We’ll get to that quote above in a while. But to start, let me describe the film’s opening for you. From a darkened screen we suddenly see a gas stove come alive. We watch the blue flames dance and jump. These flames heat a wok and some oil. Eggs are poured into the wok. We watch an unseen hand make the eggs turn over and over from the repeated stirring followed by flipping motions. Then some small tomato eighths are added and stir fried along with the eggs . We’ve just watched the signature breakfast dish (scrambled eggs and tomato) of the Little Shanghai restaurant being made.
Of course this sweet drama entitled Flavor of Happiness is about a Chinese restaurant tucked away next to small bridge. We aren’t in Shanghai, or even China. This place is Kanazawa, Japan. Its owner and sole chef, Qingkuo Wang is an elderly man. He’s taciturn, and not particularly outgoing, but he’s a wizard at the wok.
The restaurant is usually quite busy and it has come to the attention of a large department store in town that would like to sell his prepared dishes as take-away-meals at their store. Takako Yamashita (portrayed by Miki Nakatani) is a young executive in the department store and she’s been tasked to get the chef/owner’s agreement on a contract.
Only he wants no part of it. Wang is played by Tatsuya Fuji who is most widely known for his role in the 1978 classic In the Realm of the Senses. He says he will only cook for people whose faces he can see. So Takako comes back again, and again – she takes her lunch there as often as possible. At her office, her bosses amp up the pressure – get his agreement!
But still, it is no go. But Wang begins to notice her as she’s become a regular customer. He’s a little more open to conversation but still not interested in a business deal.
Two things happen – one at work …
… Takako is belittled and embarrassed at a staff meeting because she hadn’t closed the deal. And second the old chef has a mild stroke.
There’s your set up. The story proceeds as Takako leaves the department store and asks to help and learn at the restaurant. She wants to become Wang’s apprentice. As his doctors have told him that he can’t work that hard – cooking for customers in a restaurant is a pressurized job – so he ultimately is faced with either closing the restaurant or taking Takako on as an apprentice.
It works so beautifully despite the standard story which we’ve all seen before. An older teacher, a young apprentice who can’t get it right. At first Takako can barely lift the iron wok. She has to learn how to chop, slice, dice – and that’s before even attempting to cook a thing.
But most importantly, she’s got to learn to season and get the flavor and texture just so. Anyone can stir-fry with a wok – but making it taste right is an art.
Wang will tell Takako of the importance of having the right flavor: This is the life of my cooking. Takako-san, you have to learn this flavor inside out. This flavor is your future.
Yeah, it is her future. Takako is a single mom with an adorable six-year-old daughter. Wang? In one sense it is his future too as he has no one else to take over the restaurant.
The story plays out so beautifully. The food is scrumptious to look at. So is Nakatani’s Takako too. She says so much without speaking – it is her eyes that convey so much. In fact, much of the film is given over to the food preparation and the satisfaction of those who eat the delicious dishes so words aren’t necessary a lot of the time.
The story is not quite as simple as I’ve described it – but I want to leave something for you to sample and savor on your own. I’ve had a lot of enjoyable hours watching Japanese films and tv series that are set in restaurants. This is another. The film was written and directed by Mitsuhiro Mihara. Beside being sweet and heartwarming, it is a beautifully shot film. Dig in and you will find it quite tasty. Four point zero is the rating. This 2008 film is available on DVD with Chinese and English subtitles. I got my DVD in Hong Kong, but it is available here in the US. You can also search for it under the Japanese title Shiawase no kaori.
But before you, have a look at the trailer. Sorry, it lacks English subtitles, but the DVD has them. Enjoy.
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