Review: Ants on a Shrimp at MIFF5 August 2016
It’s my first time at the Melbourne International Film Festival. I think to myself, it must be normal for them to show a short film before the main feature.
The said ‘short film’ is called Ants on a Shrimp, directed by Maurice Dekkers. I gather, from the montage of Copenhagen’s red rooves and chefs in pristine smocks bustling through a sun-lit kitchen, that it’s a documentary about Noma. According to people who know about these things, Noma is one of the best restaurants in the world.
We arrive on the scene just as Noma’s visionary, René Redzepi, decides to move the restaurant to Japan for five weeks. “Everyday,” he says, “lunch, dinner… it’s a grind. Let’s do it in a new place. Let’s have some fun.”
Forty-five minutes later, the team of head chefs are in a Japanese forest collecting goo-covered mushrooms of questionable edibleness. Opening day is several weeks off. This ‘short film’ is showing no sign of ending.
I remember how the ticket attendant had glanced hastily at my ticket. “MIFF?” she had asked before sending me cheerily to Cinema Three. I fumble to check my ticket. It reads Cinema Ten.
I usually can’t stand cooking shows but I watch the rest of the film. I’m determined to squeeze every drop of juice out of my ticket.
To be fair, there are aspects of the film and its subject matter that I admire.
I’m impressed by the hard work and perseverance of the chefs as they strain under the weight of expectation that comes with being ‘the best in the world’.
I appreciate that, unlike cooking shows such as MasterChef and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare, there is little drama within the kitchen. The pressure to perform at such a high level only brings the chefs closer as a team.
United, they concoct bizarre yet stunning combinations of ingredients: clam tarts, squash and salted ume, fermented garlic leather, chocolate dipped mushrooms, unripe strawberries, sweet potato and kiwi sauce, and of course, the titular ants on a shrimp.
But there are other aspects of the film and the world it portrays that I find problematic.
Just as Noma’s temporary premises floats high above Tokyo, the world of high cuisine floats in its own bubble, far removed from everyday life. Redzepi valorises his team’s 20-hour-a-day immersion in this bubble, saying “a normal person doesn’t understand what we are doing”.
Indeed, for most “normal people”, food means sustenance and comfort. In a world where millions go hungry every day, it feels wrong to turn food into this exclusive art. The film informs us that thousands of people from around the world with nothing more important to do are attracted to the unique taste of Noma in Tokyo. It’s painfully ironic, then, that Noma shares its name with a disabling gangrenous infection caused by extreme malnutrition that is suffered by over 700,000 people every year.
The miniature portions of the degustation menu are distillations, the final results of a development process that is both wasteful and shows little regard for animal rights. On the pre-text of culinary research, the audience is shown the drawn-out decapitations of snapping turtles and the eating of live shrimp (as Redzepi says, “they don’t taste the same: they’ve got to be alive”).
The most poignant scene for me is that of Redzepi chastising another chef for burning the ducks, not grilling them. Their bodies represent lives taken to perfect a dish that, in the end, will only be eaten by people who are never hungry.
On the more technical level of narrative, the documentary’s ending is unsatisfactory. Dekkers builds suspense as opening day approaches, with Redzepi fretting, “What if people don’t enjoy the menu?”
When the restaurant finally opens, we are given a description of each dish and Redzepi says, “it’s a really great vibe in there, guys”. Then, abruptly, the credits roll out. Instead of resolving the suspense by providing us with a guest’s reaction or even a concluding statement from the chefs, Dekkers lets it just deflate.
I am left in existential crisis. I’m wondering whether the guests enjoyed the food, whether the chefs had any fun after all and why this documentary was made about Noma rather than noma.
Above all, I’m wondering what I did to end up in the wrong cinema.
Ants on a Shrimp is showing at Melbourne International Film Festival, Saturday 13 August.