“Wanton Mee” – a melancholy tale of Singapore’s hawker food scene
Hubby and I had just finished watching an excellent episode of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious” on tacos and were pondering the simple dishes we grew up with that make up much of our identity as a Singaporean and Malaysian.
“I wish they would make a documentary on wanton mee, and go and film all the hawker stalls making it.” Hubby was wistful as he thought of one of his few beloved noodle dishes from back home – Wanton mee – a simple combination of noodles in black sauce, char siu and veggies to the side and the aforementioned wantons (dumplings) in a soup next to the noodles or even in the noodles themselves. The variations are plentiful, the dish simple, a perfect execution extremely hard to pull off.
For the hell of it, I told hubby, “hold that thought!”, and started googling “wanton mee documentary”.
This was how I stumbled across Eric Khoo’s 2016 film “Wonton Mee”.
Turns out this film made such an impact when it screened at Berlin International Film Festival that it inspired four Michelin star chefs to create dishes inspired by the film! (source) Tell me that’s not already piquing your interest.
“Wanton Mee” is a fictional tale of a cynical food critic despairing at the disappearing stalwart hawker stalls in Singapore while he mentors (but mostly snubs and sneers at) a fresh young bubbly girl who’s just joined his publication who’s all into digital media and hot new food trends. The fiction is interwoven with many interviews and focus pieces on local Singaporean hawker stall owners and their lives, as the surly protagonist works to uncover the people behind the food.
The hawker stall interviews were the best part of the film, as it showcases actual hawkers and their stories – from the finance girl who left the corporate world to take over a family bak kut teh store and slowly convinced her aunts to modernise, to stories of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, sons and mothers. All these stories are threaded together by the protagonist’s wish to give the people behind the food their long-deserved due, even as he rails against the impending loss of history, soul and Singaporean identity due to government-mandated demolition of old buildings, causing his favourite neighbourhood hawkers who have been cooking in the same place for decades to finally hang up their aprons and call it a day.
Actor Chun Feng Koh plays the lead character, Boon Pin Koh, a surly middle-aged food critic who comes off as massively broody and a little bit unlikeable at first. Even his reflective chats with his elder colleague came across as two old men having a whinge about the food scene for being inauthentic. It ends up coming across slightly snobbish even though the original intent of those scenes were to highlight Singapore’s rapid pace of change when it comes to food.
The real stars of the show were all the hawker showcases. However, the shift between fact and fiction was slightly jarring, as somewhat stiff acting is juxtaposed against real people telling passionate stories about their lives and their hawker stall.
Eric Khoo is a pillar of the Singaporean film industry and is super experienced with a wide and varied filmography. Because of that, I wonder if it was an artistic choice of his to shoot the fictional dialogue pieces without any background sound, and pacing the dialogue in a slow, broody manner that came across trying to be profound but ending up being somewhat kayu (wooden).
That being said, don’t let it turn you off watching the film, as the documentary aspect of it is truly wonderful.
If you are in the Singapore region, you can watch the full film here: https://video.toggle.sg/en/video/movies/wanton-mee/337757
If not, this film is currently streaming on Singapore Airline’s entertainment playlist. I wasn’t able to find a distributor for it, but if anyone else knows where to find it, please let me know! Alternately, there are always VPNs.
Hubby didn’t quite get his wish of watching a dedicated wonton mee documentary, as this film covers a wide breadth of Singapore’s hawker industry. So if anyone is filming one, please let us know!