The first two definitions found when searching for the meaning of umami were “essence of deliciousness” and “pleasant savoury taste.” The latter seemed apt.
Umami (2022), the second feature film of writer-director Slony Sow, is a pleasant film which leaves a good taste in the mouth. However, Umami the film does not reach the heights of deliciousness.
The term umami is also the fifth taste in Japanese cooking (salty, sweet, bitter, sour) and all these ingredients are in the film.
Gabriel Carvin (Gerard Depardieu) is France’s leading chef. His restaurant in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire in western France is set in a chateau (or perhaps former ecclesiastical structure) and is run with a big staff, including second wife Louise (Sandrine Bonnaire) and Jean (Bastien Bouillon), his son from his first marriage. Gabriel and Louise’s son, Nino (Rod Paradot), completes the family.
Gabriel drinks too much; knows Louise is having an affair with a business associate; and is dismissive of Jean’s attempts to replicate his father’s recipes. When the chef has a heart attack he begins to question his life. He is in crisis and seeks counsel from his oyster farmer friend, Rufus (Pierre Ruchard).
Hypnosis is tried and when Gabriel comes to he recalls a past event where he ran second in a cooking contest, The Grand Prix. His vanquisher was a Japanese chef who made a simple noodle dish. It appears Gabriel has been tormented by this and he becomes obsessed with discovering the secret of umami by tracking down the winning chef, Tetsu Morita (Kyoto Nagatsuka).
What follows is a tale of two cultures – the French family doing their utmost to get by without Gabriel, who Nino says has “run away” and the Japanese where three generations are having mixed fortunes.
It all seems rather disjointed. Tetsu’s grand daughter Fumi (Eriko Takeda) is suicidal; his daughter Mai (Sumire) is juggling her work duties with worrying about Fumi; and Tetsu appears happy to remain almost anonymous in his ramen kitchen. Despite his high honour as a young chef, Tetsu is running a small noodle house in Hokkaido.
In what appears to be American movie-like coincidence, Nino meets Fumi; Gabriel meets a man in a capsule motel, who turns out to be the Morita family’s uncle; Rufus finds his first-ever pearl in an oyster from stock sent from Japan to help the French industry.
Gabriel’s bullish behaviour is beautifully accepted by the Japanese and language difficulties are broken down by Fumi’s multilingual studies. Tetsu reluctantly takes Gabriel on a journey to find umami and this is probably the best episode of the film.
Glad to say, everyone lives happily ever after and the earlier coincidences are neatly tied together by film’s end.
Writer-director Sow’s first movie was Parisiennes (2015) in which a Japanese author travels to Paris to interview women in the hope of finding a heroine for her next book. Switcheroo here as Gabriel goes to Japan to interview a man in the hope of finding out who he really is.
Location: The Japanese sequences were filmed in Otaru City, Hokkaido and the Kiroro Resort, Hokkaido was the ski area.