Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Sweet Bean

This is a Japanese film, beautifully and artistically presented, telling, in many ways, a simple story about three people and a pancake shop! There is some focus on the food involved, but this is far from a 'foodie' film and spends much more time on peripheral events and interesting characters' interactions.

The more I see of films from the far-east, the more I like them. They often reflect an artistic quality akin to european cinema, with a focus on cinematography, lighting, atmosphere and simple framing. This film is no exception and for those who'd rather consume it for the art, the outing would be not far from complete. Director Naomi Kawase (Still the Water) does a splendid job of bringing us multiple viewing indulgences.

However, the storyline is also important and reflects three generations of people centred around a dorayaki (sweet bean pancake) shop. The young girl Wakana, played by Kyara Uchida is trying to work out what she wants from life - to continue with school or take the more pragmatic route and seek a job. We see her angst as she struggles with her options. Masatoshi Nagase plays Sentarô, the chef at the food outlet who is more middle-aged and as the story unfolds, we find out, has a murky past - for which he has to work hard in order to repay the owner of the shop. He too is trying to make sense of life. Tokue is the woman in her 70's played by Kirin Kiki (Shoplifters) who also has a big secret up her sleeve, cutting through the sweet-old-lady mask to some degree. Initially though, she seeks a job making her special recipe bean sauce to give her something to feel worthy about - but also as a gift, to turn around the flailing fortunes of Sentarô who has had to buy-in commercial sauce, which is not favoured by many of his customers.

Have said all the above, there are no surprises here really. It's all very sedate and in many ways emotional, as the three of them become intertwined with each other in a short space of time. They start helping each other to empathise with each others' life-view and situations with the backdrop of the pancake house. Simple lives reflected in simple things with ordinary folk, but beautifully presented. There's Japanese culture to be lapped up for the audience, who can learn heaps about the far-east, standards and values alien to our own. Respect for elders, manners, politeness - to mention three.

The lovely photography is often silently observed but now and then there's some original music, which is a mix of haunting solo piano then orchestral support. The performances of the three leads are outstanding and the whole film fuses those together with the artistic mastery noted above. There's many different takeaways for viewers here. As I said above, there's all the artwork to enjoy, the emotion of the characters as things develop for some or maybe just a compact, accessible and sweet story for others. It's a simple but excellent film and highly recommended as a follow-up (for me) to the superb Shoplifters.

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