#52FILMSBYWOMEN is a campaign launched by Women In Film in an attempt to raise awareness of female filmmakers. Their initiative asks cinephiles to watch a female-directed film once a week for an entire year, and in this series I will document the films I watched as a part of this pledge.
The films of Naomi Kawase have garnered limited attention outside the festival circuit, but her latest may be her most accessible picture to date. Much like the humble foodstuff itself, Sweet Bean may not sound the most appetising of confections, but this modest foodie drama from the acclaimed Japanese writer-director is a charming, bittersweet delight.
The story appears to be a simple one. Masatoshi Nagase plays Sentaro, a quiet, dour man who runs a small food stand selling doriyaki, a Japanese pancake filled with a sweet red bean paste. His store attracts few customers, but the vendor, a dispassionate consumer of sweets, has little motivation to improve his business or the recipe which relies on ordinary bulk ordered bean paste. He’s approached one day by an eccentric elderly lady named Tokue (Kirin Kiki) who offers to work for him, but he politely dismisses her on account of her age. Disappointed but undeterred by this rejection, the old woman appears the following day with a tub of homemade filling, and when Sentaro tries it, he has an immediate change of heart. The unlikely pair begin working together soon after and business quickly starts to boom, but just when things are looking positive, revelations about the mysterious Tokue puts Sentaro in an almighty pickle.
Much like the work of her compatriot Hirokazu Koreeada, Sweet Bean is a deceptively straightforward film that celebrates humility, patience and humble traditions. Previous foodie flicks, such as Babette’s Feast or The Lunchbox, have fetishized the cooking process with luxurious dishes that would intentionally leave viewers salivating in their seats, but this gentle drama is a distinct departure from those movies – showcasing the simple pancake over the cornucopia of delicious food.
The cast give appropriately understated performances with the veteran screen actress Kirin Kiki being the standout star. Though her character occasionally drifts into caricature (waving at tree branches and listening to the beans “tell their story”), she inhabits the adorable granny figure role with complete ease. Kyara Uchida also provides some extra charm as a shy schoolgirl with a fractured family life. Though not as prevalent as the other two leads, she’s essential in completing the cross-generational message of the story.
Accusations of sentimentality aren’t unfounded, but this isn’t the sugar-overload it could’ve been. Slight this may be but this sweet confection is admittedly difficult to resist.