Film Review: ‘Wanton Mee’ Is a Delightful and Humbling Tour of Hawker Culture Dashed Only By a Shaky Plot6 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
Chun Feng Koh, a middle-aged food critic whose career is starting to wear him out, decides to explore his life and the development of Singapore through the local food.
Director: Eric Khoo
Cast: Koh Boon Pin, Tammie Chew
Language: English, Chinese
Runtime: 70 minutes
Eric Khoo’s Wanton Mee (2016) is an ode to food — Singapore’s all-time, 24/7 hot button topic, be it as a pastime, social activity, latest trend, you name it. The film pays homage to hawker culture and its firm roots in the nation’s imagination. At the same time, there is a sense of finality — as we see the ageing population of hawkers, their childrens’ disinterest in picking up the trade, and the gastronomical tastes of the younger generations’ departure from tradition.
The film is presented in a docufiction style. It follows fictional food critic, middle-aged Chun Feng Koh (Koh Boon Pin), through a series of interviews with real-life hawker stall owners in which they open up about the stories behind their food. Chun Feng’s fears about the mortality of hawker culture are embodied by the young Claire (Tammie Chew), a new addition to the local paper he works at, whose interest in novel food trends poses as a constant reminder to him that hawker culture is perhaps a dying trade in a progressive Singapore.
While Khoo employed an interesting concept to drive the film’s sentimentality to audiences, the script for the film’s fictional portion is a victim of the fictional plot’s progression. Tying a fictional food critic and his personal views about Singapore’s gastronomical scene to the real-life events and hawkers actually poses as an incredible opportunity for Khoo to angle the narrative in such a way that it leaves a lasting impression on audiences. However, the fictional string falters in its delivery, thus minimising the impact that it could have added to the film.
Claire, young and sprightly as she is, is supposedly a foil for older and more experienced critics like Chun Feng and his good friend at work, another middle-aged hawker food devotee. The two men are seen bonding over their shared grievances about the slow disappearance of the hawker scene, often discussing Claire’s work as a point of contention.
While she is in indeed an apt plot device and representation of the younger generation — that is supposedly unappreciative of good hawker food and only interested in artisanal coffee and the interior design of the cafes they favour — Claire is written as a one-dimensional character and the extent of the distaste these two older gentlemen harbour for her due to her interest in discovering novelty (mind you, a trait expected of young employees) is at best unnecessary and unprofessional, and at worst downright nasty and makes for a very uncomfortable work environment.
The rift in these two main characters’ relationship is an apt and succinct illustration of the growing generational gap in Singapore and overt social anxiety surrounding modernisation and departure from the comfort zone of tradition. However, its execution is rather clumsy.
Chun Feng and Claire fail to even interact cohesively with one another — it’s as if they are having two different conversations when they speak. Chun Feng’s interactions with Claire are awkward for no reason — when she warmly asks if she can sit with him at lunch, he replies with a cold condescension “It’s a free country.” Their awkward relationship makes for only a tepid use of character foils, and thus a missed opportunity to truly represent the strain of differing values in younger generations.
Meanwhile, the problematic start to their relationship also mars the appeal of the protagonist, whose thoughts and opinions are actually largely relatable. Even when Chun Feng starts to soften toward Claire close to the end of the film, the dynamic still feels odd and underdeveloped. By the end of the film, there is no real resolution to his inexplicable rudeness for most of its runtime, leaving him a rather unlikeable character that is difficult for viewers to empathise with.
It’s a pity that the awkwardness affects the brilliance of the documentary side of the film, which is heartwarming and sincere. Listening to the stories of the hawkers is a delightfully humbling experience. It’s indeed a sort of chicken soup for the soul, wholesome and moving, and would no doubt cultivate a deeper appreciation for the hawker scene in viewers, local and foreign alike. Their difficulties, such as the tedium (practical and financial) of day-to-day operations and the fear that the business will die with its elderly owners are all the more real and pressing today, in the midst of the lockdowns imposed by COVID-19 that have forced many food businesses into perilous positions.
It does not need to be said that the hawkers are the true stars of the film. In sharing their origin stories, they often bring in their parents, whose hopes and dreams were pinned onto these humble food businesses. Their sharings are authentic, and the familial motif is universal and could move even international audiences who are unfamiliar with hawker culture. We are left with a renewed admiration for these local gems that is also slightly bittersweet, as the hawker spirit inches further and further out of the picture in lieu of modern dining preferences. The charming humanity of these interview sections is only undercut by the perplexing nature of the fictional storyline.
Overall the film works, though it’s a rather middling watch. The visuals are great, because who doesn’t love foodporn? Shots of chicken oil-soaked rice being molded into balls, char kway teow being tossed around a flaming wok, and nasi lemak being assembled on the plate can never go wrong, and are mouth-watering to watch.
What Wanton Mee does well is to spotlight the people behind our beloved local delights — there is something so appealing about watching people interact with basic ingredients and transform them into the dishes we know and love. In light of the constricting effects the pandemic has on this class of food venders, who are often digitally disadvantaged and therefore unable to jump onto the social media bandwagon, there really aren’t enough local films being made that draw attention to them and their fascinating stories.
Perhaps the film’s most valuable takeaway is that food is often not only what we eat from the plate. It’s also about the people and the interactions we have as part of the whole experience. Khoo tries hard to drive home the point that the most crucial ingredient in hawker food is the love and passion the hawker has for his creations. The film would have been a far more impactful one were it not for the unsettling fictional plot, and, in the spirit of badly-placed metaphors, you could say that too many cooks spoiled Wanton Mee.
Wanton Mee is now streaming on Netflix.