Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Last Recipe touches the heart as well as whets appetites (film review)

The Hong Kong poster for Japanese film
Rasuto Reshipi: Kirin no Shita no Kioku 

The Last Recipe (Japan, 2017)
- Yojiro Takita, director
- Starring: Kazunari Ninomiya, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yoshi Oida, Wakato Kanematsu, Aoi Miyazaki, Go Ayano

After I viewed Yojiro Takita's Oscar-winning Departures some years ago, I found myself filled with a desire to try a delicacy I saw being prepared in the movie -- which I later discovered to be fugu shirako.  Put another way: despite it being a drama about a cellist turned undertaker, I came away from a viewing of that sublime movie wanting to eat blowfish sperm!  

So when I learnt of the same filmmaker's latest offering being a drama revolving around a gifted chef able to re-create any dish he's tasted even just once, I figured that The Last Recipe would be the kind of movie that would be filled with lots of appetizing food scenes and get me hurrying off to a restaurant post-viewing even if I went into the screening with a full stomach!  And so it proved, and quite a bit  more.

After his extreme perfectionism causes his foray into the restaurant business to fail, Mitsuru Sasaki (pop idol-actor Kazunari Ninomiya) turns to personally cooking up meals for people, including those on their deathbeds, who are able and willing to pay 1 million Yen for the privilege.  Willing to travel anywhere to do so, he goes to Beijing after being offered 3 million Yen -- only to encounter an elderly man named Yang Qingming (Yoshi Oida) who tasks Mitsuru with finding the recipes for, and recreating, an over 100 dish legendary Great Japanese Imperial Feast concocted in 1930s Japanese-ruled Manchukuo by a former Japanese Imperial Household chef named Naotoro Yamagata (Hidetoshi Nishijima). 

The assignment leads Mitsuru to different parts of Japan and also over to Harbin, China, where he meets with various individuals with ties to Naotoro Yamagata.  As they take it in turn to relate key information about the chef celebrated for being able, like Mitsuru, to re-create any dish he had tasted, the chef turned sleuth gets to realizing that the ethnic Manchu Yang Qingming (played as a young man by Yoshi Oida) was one of Naotoro's two assistants in Manchukuo and that there are important secrets that he's being used to unearth, some of them unsavory.

In an interesting departure from convention, The Last Recipe's nominal main character may actually be its least sympathetic for much of the film.  Perhaps due in part to this, its contemporary scenes initially are much less absorbing than those set in 1930s Manchukuo, which not only feature a number of compelling characters -- including Naotoro's wife, Chizu (Aoi Miyazaki), and young Japanese assistant, Shotaro (Daigo Nishihata) as well as Naotoro and the young Yang Qingming -- but also the bulk of the movie's seriously food porn-ish cooking and dining scenes.

It's also interesting to note that a good bulk of this film is set in a place that may have been a Japanese puppet state but really was much more culturally and geographically Chinese.  And while there may be fears that its filmmakers are not sensitive of the fact (due to such as a key Chinese character being portrayed by Japanese actors), their turning out to actually be is one of the things that makes The Last Recipe genuinely moving as well as appealingly bittersweet.

My rating for the film: 8.0

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