“Mooncake” – food or fiction? An honest review of Mediacorp and TBS Japan’s co-produced drama

The mooncake season is on us again, with Mid-Autumn Festival taking place this year on 21 September. Traditionally, mooncakes have been known as baked pastries with that bronze sheen, opening up to reveal the pasty lotus seed filling enshrining that golden egg yolk within.

This changed with the introduction of non-baked, snow skin mooncakes with their signature pastel-coloured skins that made their debut in Hong Kong. Today, we have the privilege of enjoying unique flavours from all over the world that snow skin mooncakes are particularly good at playing host to. Some flavour pairings quickly turn into trends, and you occasionally have the one hit wonders which fizzle out shortly after, while others fail miserably.

Categorising mooncakes and dorama

A typical, indigenous Japanese dorama is like a traditional mooncake – hearty, sentimental with a tinge of nostalgia, unpretentious yet appetizing. Most of them go down well and leave you with a sense of satisfaction. Enter a collab (short for collaboration) dorama and we can liken it to a snow skin mooncake – a hit or miss sort of thing.

The dorama “Mooncake”, 「ムーンケーキ」as it is written in Japanese, is exactly the latter. It starts out looking so beautiful and brimming with immense potential, the kind of impression you would get when you see a snowskin mooncake labelled as [Singapore x Japan], conjuring up images of mystique, promise and tasteful ingenuity. Alas, once you actually taste it, you feel like spitting it out immediately, but instead, because it is so せっかく’sekkaku’ (what are the odds of coming across such a dorama?), you awkwardly swallow it and continue with the rest of the pieces hoping that the subsequent bites will taste better as the flavour grows on you.

Mooncakes can be gifts and so can a dorama

Unfortunately it doesn’t. Which is a shame. Because the story behind how this 45-minute-long single dorama episode that was co-produced by TBS Japan and Mediacorp Singapore came about, is a touching one: produced and filmed in 2011, the same year that the devastating triple disaster hit the northeastern coast of Japan, the drama was a gift from Japan to Singapore to thank the SCDF, who sent its elite Operation Lionheart contingent comprising members from its DART team, to aid with the rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.

The co-stars are Singapore’s own Qi Yuwu, who needs no introduction, and Shinobu Otsuka, a Japanese model who hails from Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. Qi Yuwu plays an aspiring-turned-DART team member from the SCDF, and Otsuka’s character has come from Japan to Singapore to start a new life after calling off the marriage to her fiancé who was cheating on her. The lines are mainly in Chinese, with Japanese and English making intermittent appearances, and it seems that Otsuka was chosen to star in this drama because she had previously studied acting in China.

Dissecting this mooncake

While Otsuka’s Chinese accent is at times somewhat suspect and cringe-worthy, to have a Japanese person suddenly popping up in a dorama speaking Mandarin, without the storyline explaining why this is so, deals a huge blow to its credibility.

In addition, the storyline is hardly convincing or alluring. The main theme that is the 3.11 disaster does not feature until there is nine minutes left on the clock. The plot is also instantly predictable from the outset. Girl meets boy under inopportune circumstances causing them to dislike each other. But miraculously, another chance encounter affords their meeting under more noble circumstances and they start to develop feelings for each other. Otsuka’s efforts at acting too, constantly work to remind the audience that she is first and foremost a model, not an actress.

To rub salt into the wound, the filmography is unspectacular; in fact it is reminiscent of the feel of trendy dorama that were popular in Japan about a decade before Mooncake was filmed, making it a strange oddity compared to other dorama of its time.

Transitions are shoddy with the sudden cutting of music and misalignment of scenes and overall, watching it makes you wonder if any real thought went into the making of this dorama or if it was just done for the sake of having something to show for the Singaporean-Japan friendship.

A mooncake that lacks a punch

I ended up feeling extremely disappointed that I had wasted 45 minutes of my life on something so blasé, so typical and uninspiring, despite its main storyline having been based on one of most sobering disasters of our time.

Nevertheless, if there is one reason to watch this dorama, it would be the belief that what it stands for is worth greater than its substance. It is the embodiment of a friendship between two nations and their people. In this world where we already have enough of hate that spurns the other, this dorama causes us to realise that we can indeed have bonds that transcend cultural differences which only get stronger through the worst of times. The dorama’s Chinese title, 朋友, which means ‘friends’, alludes to this solidarity.

In conclusion, watching this dorama is like eating a snow skin mooncake that is kaya toast-and-ramen flavoured; you have high hopes for it, that someone would have the dare and courage to produce something so unique, but the moment your tastebuds realise what you are about to digest, you feel like throwing the rest into the bin – nonetheless, you grit your teeth and finish up the rest, because in this case, it is the underlying thought and intent that matter more than the actual form.

Commendable effort there, but in this author’s opinion, let’s stick with having mooncake as food, and not fiction, for now.

About the author

Graduate student at the The University of Tokyo.
Mum of one.
In pursuit of Works of Art in spite of this Age of Mechanical Reproduction.