Cannes 2015: ‘An’ (Sweet Red Bean Paste), a taste of Japan



Directed and written by Naomi Kawase

Written by Naomi Kawase, based on the novel by Tetsuya Akikawa

Japan, 2015

Alright-ness continues at this year’s festival with the Un Certain Regard opening film An (“Sweet Red Bean Paste”) by Cannes regular Naomi Kawase. The film stars Masatoshi Nagase as Sen, a middle-aged dorayaki pastry maker with alcohol issues and Kirin Kiki as Tokue, an elderly woman eager to work as Sen’s assistant in the pastry shop. The youthful touch is provided by Kyara Uchida as a shy schoolgirl having a hard time getting along with her single mother. Reluctant at first, Sen ends up admiring Tokue’s unique bean paste making talent and employs her to the displeasure of the pastry shop’s owner. Gradually, the three generations forge an intimate friendship as their respective traumas are revealed.

This humble drama offers a predictable, even if delicious, delve into a small-town Japanese world of culinary redemption. Getting to Cannes jet-lagged from a first trip to Japan, I was a sucker for all things dorayaki (a pastry that deserves to be in the credits of An given its pivotal importance) and okonomiyaki so there is no denying that I found the film enjoyable and pleasant, which is probably how it will go down in film history. ‘Feel-good’ is likely the qualification that springs to mind  – ‘feel-good’ in the vein of Intouchables (Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, 2011) and a countless number of permutations of the well-worn premise of an unlikely pair reluctantly and inevitable bonding over a shared central theme (the artisanal tradition of dorayaki  manufacture) and gradually helping one another heal their respective wounds.

An is stuffed with a series of conventional tropes and recurrent visual motifs of Japan-ness – the lingering shots of cherry blossom, the luxuriant texture of the brewing red beans, the patient, unhurried unfolding of the plot , the emphasis on heeding nature’s whisper, the polite, demure schoolgirl – zen filmmaking, if such a genre exists, at its most Japanese. While far from memorable, “An” succeeds at faithfully and leisurely evoking the mood and taste of a slice of Japan.

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