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Udon: The Second Best Japanese Movie Ever Made

<i>Udon</i>

Udon

When I first saw Udon, the 2006 film about a failed comedian who finds happiness reviewing noodle shops back in his home prefecture in Japan, I was entranced enough by the endless, steaming bowls of noodles to watch it two times in a row on the tiny seat-back entertainment system, and it might have been three, had the flight been a bit longer. Katsuyaki Motohiro was clearly as obsessed with Sanuki noodle culture as he had been with police procedure in his Bayside Shakedown series, and nobody has ever nosed his lens quite so intimately into a bowl of udon.

I’m not really a film person (although I did write reviews for the Weekly back in the 1980s, specializing in splatter flicks, the oeuvres of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson, and movies starring boys named Corey), so it was something of a surprise when David Ansen asked me to be an artist-in-residence at this year’s L.A. Film Festival. The other artists in residence this year are Pee-wee Herman (whose entire output I still own in stylish VCR tapes whose box spines, when put in the proper order, form a stunning dinosaur scene) and Quincy Jones, who — you know, Quincy Jones. I describe tacos for a living. 

But when Ansen asked me to select a movie to be shown at this year’s festival, I knew what to do. Ansen, who was the Newsweek film critic for more than 30 years, plumped for Big Night — he’s a big fan — but that scene near the end, when Stanley Tucci’s character uses two hands instead of one to break an egg, gives every food person I know fits. A showing of the screwball comedy Christmas in Connecticut, in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a cooking-challenged writer masquerading as a sort of Martha Stewart for her unknowing boss, would have been just weird in June. Ansen vetoed Eat the Rich, a broad, anti-Thatcher cannibal-restaurant comedy with a first-rate Motörhead sound track and a bushel of rotten reviews, and he shuddered at the idea of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in which Chop-top and the gang double as Texas chili champions. “One of them hard-shell peppercorns,” the cook says, pulling a finger bone out of a customer’s chili.

And everybody’s seen Tampopo, or should.

But has anybody seen Udon, the second-best Japanese noodle movie ever made? It never really showed in theaters here, and none of my film-geek friends has ever caught it at a festival. The consensus opinion about the film is that there’s too much udon in it, that there’s too much udon-eating in it, that the lovingly shot visits to rural noodle shops take up screen time that might be spent on incidental things like plot, romance, family and character development.

Character development? There are noodles to be eaten. For some of us, too much food is not a problem. (Downtown Independent; Sat., June 19, 4 p.m.)