Sweet Bean is a beautiful, quiet film that often feels like a documentary, as if we have been given a magic window through which to observe the lives of some ordinary people in an ordinary place.
The Japanese director Naomi Kawase may not be that well known in the United States, but she’s something of a festival darling with an artistic reputation far outstripping her popularity among the general public. In 1997, she became the youngest winner of the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for her film Suzaku, and in 2007 won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2007 for The Mourning Forest. Other major awards include the 2000 FIPRESCI Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival for Hotaru and 2006 New Vision Award at the CPH:DOX Festival for Tarachime.
Kawase’s latest film, Sweet Bean, may be the ideal introduction to her work. It’s conventional enough to be accessible to the average film goer, yet still has the qualities that have brought her international recognition. The title refers to the Azuki bean paste that is used in making doroyaki, a popular Japanese snack food made of two sweet pancakes with a filling of the paste. Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase, who you may remember from Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train) runs a doroyaki shop near a train station, and while he seems to be making a living, he’s none too enthusiastic about either his product or the business itself. In fact, he’s a pretty all-around glum guy who goes through his daily routine without taking much pleasure or interest in anything.
Then one day a stranger comes to town. Actually, an old lady named Tokue (Kirin Kiki) shows up at the shop and inquires about a part-time job. She appears quite ancient and has crippled hands, so Sentaro tries to discourage her by saying the work would be too hard. She won’t take no for an answer, however, and comes back with some homemade bean paste that proves to be far tastier than the factory-made product Sentaro has been using. Tokue is soon cooking bean paste from scratch for the shop, talking to the beans as if they were living beings and admonishing Sentaro to treat them with the respect and care they deserve. Any serious cook can identify with her attitude, because a good cook understands and respects the food she cooks and recognizing the unique qualities of each ingredient is part of what makes a dish successful.
Sentaro has several repeat customers, including a group of school girls who like to giggle and play with their phones and trade mean gossip. You just know they rule their school, in contrast to another schoolgirl, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), who is shy and withdrawn. The three outsiders eventually bond, as you would expect, but that’s only part of the story. Sweet Bean becomes much darker after we learn that both Tokue and Sentaro are harboring secrets, and the shop owner, a thoroughly unpleasant and conniving woman, uses her knowledge of those secrets to pressure Sentaro to do something he absolutely does not want to do. A social and political issue is also raised in the second half of the film, one that may send you scrambling to the Wikipedia to find out what the real story is.
Sweet Bean is a beautiful, quiet film that often feels like a documentary, as if we have been given a magic window through which to observe the lives of some ordinary people in an ordinary place. It has a message, but conveys it subtly through the look and feel of the film rather than by stating it directly. Tokue is in some ways the most fortunate character in the film because she has learned to be truly present in each moment and to take the best from it, which can be as simple as noticing how the light comes through the cherry blossoms or enjoying how good food tastes when it is well-prepared. Being present in your life also means being willing to take chances with people, which of course means that you are also vulnerable to being hurt. Still, her approach to life is preferable to either withdrawing from the world or dwelling on the surface of life and spending your time and energy reinforcing your place in the social hierarchy. | Sarah Boslaugh
Sweet Bean will be screened at 8:00 pm on May 20, 21, and 22 at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University (470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO, 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $4 for Webster University staff and faculty, and are free for Webster University students with proper ID. Further information about tickets is available here and the film series calendar is available here.