Film Review: Sweet Bean

"Everything in the world has a story to tell," explains a character in Japanese director Naomi Kawase's new film Sweet Bean, which finally arrives in UK cinemas over year after its berth in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is the manager of a small bakery which specialises in a traditional Japanese pastry known as 'dorayaki'. The spring blossom drifts and yet Sentaro is not a happy man. He mechanically goes about his work to pay off an old debt and a lingering melancholy pervades his days along with a drink problem. He chats with a young school girl who has her own problems, namely with an inattentive mother.

One day an elderly woman Tokue (Kirin Kiki) shows up at the shop and asks for a job. Initially brushed off, she returns with some homemade bean paste, the 'an' of the original Japanese title, an essential part of the dorayaki, which is so good it persuades Sentaro to give her a chance. Based on a novel by Tetsuya Akikawa, Kawase's adaptation is an intimate and moving portrait of three lost people who come together and learn to find some direction in their lives. Like her poetic previous film, Still the Water, Sweet Bean is a modest work which seeks profundity in the detail of life. The long slow process of the preparation of the bean sauce is analogous to the film itself. Listening for nuance subtle changes - "The scent of the steam has changed" - Tokue says at one point.

And yet this isn't a foodie movie like 1985's Tampopo. The cooking of the beans is just one of many moments in which life can be listened to and genuinely felt and lessons learned. Every character has a hidden story and the drama of Sweet Bean takes on a broader interest. Sentaro is under pressure from the kiosk owner and Tokue has a hidden history as a woman who was quarantined from society because of her leprosy and who is even now treated with fear. As her relationship with Sentaro grows, so they also have to look at their own lives.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty


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