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Kamome Diner

Finland, Japan (2006), 102 minutes
Starring: Satomi Kobayashi, Masako Motai, Hairi Katagiri, Tarja Markus
Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rating: 5
Though I review lots of samurai films where violence is a natural part of the proceedings, I admit to enjoying just about everything if it’s done well. A great love story can make one retch at the overabundance of syrup, or weep at the emotions bubbling up so vividly on screen. A martial arts film can feature great acting, pulse pounding action, and/or a look into the lives and desires of those that devote themselves to combat, or it can bore us with “fighters” that have no skills at all and no script to keep them afloat. We have all marveled at spectacular special effects that turn the realm of the imagination into visual reality, and at comedies that leave us rolling on the floor with laughter.As wonderful as films like these can be (but rarely are), by far the most gratifying to watch is one about things that seem small and perhaps unimportant to most, but magically envelopes us with the realization that the actors in the film are quietly sharing feelings, goals, and tribulations that are part of all of our lives. This review is about this last kind of film, and its intricacy and bubbling purity make Kamome Diner (Kamome shokudo in Japanese, which translates to Seagull Diner, and Ruokala Lokki in Finnish) nothing less than astonishing.

Kamome Diner centers around a 38-year-old Japanese woman named Sachie (splendidly played by Satomi Kobayashi) who opens a small Japanese diner in Helsinki, Finland. Though her establishment is sparkling clean and nicely located, the locals don’t quite know what to make of it – a month goes by and not one customer has dared to open the door! This doesn’t mean that people don’t look in. One of the movies many subdued but effective comedic moments occurs when three elderly, rather large, Finish ladies peer through the window and, spotting the diminutive Sachie, wonder aloud whether she’s an adult or a child. And when Sachie smiles at them, the women rush away, all atwitter.Of course, other characters soon appear to add their own layers to the innocent goings on. First we get Tommi (Jarkko Niemi), a young man who is trying to learn to speak Japanese. Due to a rather funny question posed by Tommi, an odd Japanese lady name Midori (Hairi Katagiri) enters the picture. How does a Japanese end up in Helsinki? In Midori’s case, she closed her eyes and pointed to a world map. Perhaps I should give this technique a try next time I decide to go somewhere.

A while later another Japanese lady, Masako, played by Masako Motai) appears, stuck in Helsinki when her luggage went missing. Masako is my favorite character, though everyone in this film is quirky and fascinating. Trapped in servitude via her obligation to care for her sick and elderly parents, their deaths have freed her to search for some kind of meaning in her life. These three women, all strangers in a strange land, bond in service to each other and the diner.

As one might guess, the little eatery ultimately turns into the toast of the town. But the movie isn’t about success or failure. It’s about a sense of community (in this case the mergence of various Finnish eccentrics and the Japanese women), the creation of family (the coming together of the three women), and every person’s very personal inner journey of self-discovery.Made with a very low budget and brought to public attention by word of mouth instead of the usual glitzy ads and posters, Kamome Diner is a quiet film filled with humor, depth, cultural metaphors (both Finnish and Japanese), and more than a little mystery. Much like the diner that was avoided but eventually enjoyed success, the movie itself opened to little or no fanfare but soon enjoyed the adoration of film aficionados worldwide.

Quiet little Kamome Diner certainly won me over. Give it a chance and it will win you over too.