“Dream Cuisine” is ostensibly about attempts to keep ancient culinary arts alive, but it’s really a melancholy look at the fading of youthful aspirations in old age. Principal subjects, an elderly Japanese couple that espouses an antiquated Chinese cooking style, are prickly and remote, but extended time with them yields rewards. An excellent dish for the menus of fests of all kinds, delicacy would be even better with just a little fat removed.
Hatsue Sato, a stubby, taciturn 78-year-old born in China to a Japanese functionary, and Koroku, her 72-year-old husband of four decades or so, have run a Tokyo restaurant devoted to food from China’s Shandong province for a long time. The cuisine was almost wiped out during the out-with-the-old phase of the Cultural Revolution, and it is Sato’s last wish to bring that fare back to her childhood home.
Non-narrated pic follows her to the Shandong capital of Jinan, where she’s interviewed on morning television and feted by the local Oriental Gourmet College. That school’s youngish head, Liu Gwangwei, initially appears to champion the Satos, but he simply sees dollar signs when they’re around. Worse, his top chef has no respect for Hatsue’s dictum of “no sugar, no lard, no MSG.” As it becomes clear to the cranky grand dame that her 1,500 classic recipes — lovingly compiled for a book that will probably never get published — will be lost if she’s not there to teach them, Hatsue decides to move back to China permanently. This doesn’t sit too well with Koroku, however, who suddenly starts coming up with ailments to keep him from moving.
Helmer Li Ying obviously spent enough time around his subjects to get them to behave naturally in front of the camera. And his leisurely takes, usually from a fixed spot close to the sitting position, almost always deliver Ozu-like tidbits of rich human behavior.
Liu, the would-be cuisine king, allows himself to be seen as a total prat. The Satos, meanwhile, are mostly cloaked in a muffled world of dark wood and distant memories, with Hatsue only breaking stoical spell to sing a wistful song from her provincial childhood.
Trimming scenes and removing repetition could help. Furthermore, despite all the time spent seeing different dishes prepared and argued over, auds get very little idea what differentiates Shandong fare. Some background, perhaps provided by a separate expert or through animation or archival still, would add context and variety. One comes away from the table here feeling that our chef du cinema is more interested in dreams than cuisine.