It’s discovering documentaries like Come Back Anytime (8/8) — a beautifully heartfelt and lyrical look at the enduring power of love, connection and really good food — that is, for me, what Hot Docs is all about. And I’m so glad I saw this at the end of the festival, because I fear it would have set a very high bar for everything else that would have followed.
Directed by John Daschbach, and featuring a fabulous score (courtesy of Michael Shaieb and Brent Lord) that flits between jazzy and classical depending on the location onscreen, the film serves up a year in the life of Masamoto and Kazuko Ueda, the aging owners of a tiny but beloved Tokyo ramen restaurant called Bizentei, where the customers have become like a second family — to the Uedas and each other. Self-taught (from a book!), Masamoto (or “Master,” as he’s known to many patrons) has been in business 40 years, whipping up the items from his admittedly limited but exceptional menu with great care, and always welcoming guests to sit down, slurp up, and share conversation along with their meals. But it’s more than just the delicious fare that keeps people coming back: his customers explain that, to them, he’s a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to lean on, a matchmaker and a teacher (often inviting them to his home on his days off, or taking them on trips to the country to help him harvest vegetables), a father figure and a local icon. And, as the doc unspools, it’s easy to see why: both Masamoto and Kazuko are lovable, humble and matter-of-fact. Of his accomplishments, Masamoto says he’s “just an old guy doing what he knows” until such time as he decides he just won’t do it anymore — a thought that makes many of his loyal friends and customers (and me!) teary. Although some may perceive it as a “documentary about ramen,” Come Back Anytime is so much more. A bit like 2019’s The Wandering Chef (in tone) and 2017’s Ramen Heads (in subject matter), it’s about the human experience, relationships, and gently nurturing a supportive community one bowl of noodles at a time.
And, like the broth at the heart of each of those bowls, the doc is deceptively simple — only when you dig in do you realize it’s actually refined and complex, filled with all sorts of unexpected and delightful ingredients that, together, create a magical and totally satisfying experience.