Film Review: Ants on a Shrimp

This look at Copenhagen-based Noma restaurant founder/chef René Redzepi’s venture into Tokyo to create original Japanese-inspired lunches and dinners for about 3,000 diners over five weeks falls short of a four-star cinematic experience.
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No matter the preciousness and pretentiousness of it all, serious foodies will want a taste of writer-director Maurice Dekkers’ Ants on a Shrimp, a Netherlands/Japan co-production in English with a smattering of subtitled Japanese.

This latest addition to the growing menu of food and foodie-themed docs may have a title that suggests the latest examination of an apparent trend amongst serious eaters to consume insects. Here, however, they may be no more than a garnish; it’s murky.

As in Pierre Deschamps’ excellent 2015 Noma My Perfect Storm, which focused on Redzepi and his restaurant in situ, Ants delivers another dose of the highly articulate, screen-friendly chef as he and five kitchen colleagues travel to Japan to apply the Redzepi philosophy and Noma approach of mostly local, often foraged ingredients into new dishes to be engineered for Japanese palates.

Redzepi, remembered as Noma’s showman, cheerleader and promoter with a gift for obscenities and bringing out the best in his team, proposed the five-week event to the Japanese, and the posh Mandarin Oriental Tokyo Hotel nibbled. He continues in this doc as a master of ceremonies, providing voiceover, his usual colorful language, and some manufactured drama to add heat. He pushes and inspires his team forward with calls to meet the challenge and create no recipes that are merely “cut-and-paste from home.”

Ants, which leaves out meal prices, diner reactions and even clarity regarding those insects of the title, provides plenty of scenes in the Tokyo bunker kitchen, in the country’s forests where vegetation is foraged, local spots for gathering mushrooms or fish (the famous Tokyo fish market), and generous portions of shots captured from the restaurant’s 37th floor of Tokyo cityscapes pierced with many glass and steel monoliths.

Appropriately, considerable time is given to the Noma staff’s life in the Mandarin’s underground kitchen, where they test, then eventually prepare their selected recipes. There’s also zigzagging to their lessons on Japanese language, customs and geography and to flash-profiles of Redzepi’s assistants on the Tokyo team. They are a likeable bunch—Lars Williams, Rosio Sanchez, Thomas Frebel, Dan Giusti and Kim Mikkola—who are brought to life via their own voiceovers and shots as they grapple with their culinary challenge. Like Redzepi did in Noma, they betray slightly bruised souls, the kind that seem to inform, like their familiar tattoos, many a dedicated kitchen warrior, whatever the rank.

But Ants, true to its title, is less mouth-watering than mouth-defying and the foods and dishes on view impress as less yum food porn than bummer foodie exploitation. Of course, taste is in the buds of the beholder and there will be many viewer fans of this cuisine among the culinary elite and dead-serious. But what is given onscreen as edible at the high end (whether in forests, the kitchen or elegantly plated for tables) will leave many viewers hungry.

Bad taste also comes by way of the camera’s scrutiny as the team slaughters turtles or rips at the feathers and bodies of recently killed large ducks, rituals served up as gruesomely but not quite as gleefully as Anthony Bourdain in bad-boy mode does.

And those eponymous ants on shrimp remain mysterious. As an end sequence delivers close-ups with title IDs of the Noma crew’s culinary concoctions finally ready for the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo customers, one shot comprises a nicely plated single langoustine (also referred to in the doc as a “shrimp” and possibly still alive) with an unidentified funny topping of black nubs of something that could very well be those ants or maybe damaged capers or even bunny droppings. Bon appétit?

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