Cross-cultural comedy dramas can be something of an unholy alliance but this awkward fate is easily avoided by Kamome Diner, a quietly charming film of one woman, her dream, and the unexpected interlopers who help her achieve it…
On a quiet side street in Helsinki lies the titular “Kamome Shokudo” (“Ruokala Lokki” in Finnish, “Seagull Diner”, in English), the eaterie of Japanese expatriate Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi). Sachie’s big dream, since coming to Finland, is to bring the best rice balls imaginable to the population of her adoptive nation. However, one month after opening, Sachie still hasn’t had a single customer. There is a trio of middle aged ladies who stand outside the window gossiping and a bedraggled but silent woman, Liisa (Tarja Markus), who peers in with an unexplained expression of rage, but no customers.
That is until, one day, young Japan fan Tommi Hiltonen (Jarkko Niemi) pops inside to ask Sachie for the lyrics to the Gatchaman (Battle Of The Planets) theme song. From there, Sachie runs into the gangly Midori (Hairi Katagiri), a Japanese tourist who has come on holiday to Finland by mistake, and invites her to help out at the diner, not least to assist in fielding Tommi’s inquiries about Japan and Japanese culture. The three are soon firm friends, bolstered by the arrival of Masako (Masako Motai), a stiffly formal mature Japanese lady who is stranded in Helsinki after her luggage was lost during her flight’s stopover.
Without customers to swell the coffers of the diner, this unusual quartet endeavour to come up with ideas to being reticent Helsinki residents through the door. This kicks off a chain of unexpected events such as the gruff Matti (Markku Peltola) secretly teaching Sachie a magic charm for making the best coffee, the distraught Liisa revealing the reason for her rage (over shots of vodka) and the gossiping ladies becoming addicted to Sachie’s cinnamon rolls…
Written and directed by Naoko Ogigami, based on the novel by Yoko Mure, Kamome Diner is a film where the comedy is subtle and the drama is gentle; indeed it hinges on the small things in life that make the greatest difference in film. There’s a lovely little sub-plot of the lovelorn Finnish man who, carrying his cat, observes Masako at the harbour every day waiting for her luggage. With neither the courage nor the vocabulary to express himself to her, the man loans Masako his moggie to look after so she won’t leave Helsinki: it’s a delicate and delightful part of the film, all expressed without dialogue.
Each of the three women at the core of the story is facing a mid-life crisis of sorts but, although there is an incontestible “fish out of water” flavour to the film, Ogigami plays up the sincerity, not the sentimentality, of the situation. Using food to break down cultural and linguistic barriers is not a new concept, especially not in film, but Ogigami finds several different ways to subvert the obvious cliches while staying true to the story. Satomi Kobayashi, much like in Nobuko Miyamoto in Tampopo, is a winning presence as Sachie although this is much more an ensemble piece than just Hairi Katagiri and Masako Motai lending sterling support.
There are parallels to Fridrik Fridriksson's excellent Cold Fever, which features another a Japaner trying to find his way in a far northern country, and Juzo Itami’s highly recommended genre-bending Tampopo, but Kamome Diner is a much more restrained affair. There are lots of terrifically neat touches (such as Midori’s dream sequences and Sachie’s surprising single-handed apprehension of what initially appears to be a burglar) but the leisurely pace certainly won’t appeal to all. However, it is deceptively captivating and patience will be rewarded as the charm of the film grows inexorably, effectively mirroring the way the diner acts as a McGuffin to pull more and more characters into the story.