Film review: “An” or ”Sweet Red Bean Paste” by Naomi Kawase

It took weeks for this film to be scheduled at a convenient date and time. It has been on show in European art house cinemas since late 2015. “An” or “Sweet Red Bean Paste” was first shown at Cannes in 2015, but not all critics were impressed.

An 2It is another beautiful Japanese film like “Our little sister”. This time, the main character is in her seventies. She calls herself “An” and arrives at a Japanese pancake hut, when the cherry-blossoms are in full bloom.

Like many old ladies, she is kind of funny and strange: a combination of child and old witch. In fact, she reminded me a bit of my grandmother, though she had perfect hands. She shared with “An” a similar pleasure in childlike activities, weird fantasies, insights and wisdom, clever ways with people, and endless appreciation of young folks. Grandmothers play an important role in director Naomi Kawase’s works.

But before “An” arrives on the scene, the viewer is introduced to the daily routine of “pancake chef” Sentaro. When the sun is up, he goes for his first smoke on the roof terrace on top of his small apartment in a poor housing estate. He reaches his hut just before opening time, at 11 o’clock and starts baking pancakes (dorayaki) which are filled with a sweet red bean sauce or paste. This sweet paste is called “An”.

Local secondary schoolgirls visit the small hut, which is not overly popular with other customers. One of the girls, Wakana, always takes burnt and misshapen pancakes home. She is from a broken home and lives with her selfish mother in another poor housing estate. The girl wants to study, but mum thinks this will cost too much.

When “An” arrives, she is after a job at the pancake hut. She wants the advertised job so badly, she goes way below any minimum wage. Sentaro refuses and fobs her off several times. He also refuses the job to Wakana, who hopes it might pay part of her university studies after she finishes secondary school.

an 1“An” later returns with a home-made bean paste. When chef Sentaro finally tastes it, it is far better than the bulk prefab stuff he uses. It is Wakana, who convinces him at the restaurant where her boyfriend works, to give the old lady a chance.

Much later, it turns out that “An” has a proper name. She is called Tokue. But by then, malicious gossip has ensured she has lost her job. The actual owner of the pancake has also foisted her nephew on Sentaro. The hut is in the process of being “converted”. Sentaro and Wakana visit Tokue and the viewer finds out what is wrong with Tokue’s hands.

A lot more happens to the three people before Sentaro is able to set up shop as an independent dorayaka-chef. By then, the cherry-trees are in bloom again, but the three out-casts have split up.

In his Guardian film review of “An”, Peter Bradshaw states: “… Despite some touching moments, and earnest performances, I must confess to feeling exasperated by the sentimentality and stereotype being served up. The film has an impeccable technical finish, but it is insipid, contrived, solemn, and ever so slightly preposterous. …”

The last few minutes of this film do make a demand upon a viewer concerning death and how the dead experience our world. This film may not be as good as “Our little sister”. However, all this does not mean you should not watch it and reflect upon some of its messages.

“An” is still running at a few European art house cinemas.
Director: Naomi Kawase
Tokue: Kiki Kirin
Sentaro: Nagase Masatoshi
Wakana: Uchida Kyara

Youtube official trailer “An”
Guardian Peter Bradshaw review “An”


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