An – a film about sweet red bean paste and the simplicity of happiness
Naomi Kawese’s film An, which translates to Sweet Red Bean Paste, is one of the surprises, at least for me, at the festival so far. The film examines the relationship of three unlikely people coming together over the cooking and eating and appreciating of Dorayaki. The quest for the perfect red bean paste eventually brings the chef and his elderly teacher to form a close bond, as both of them discover how they’ve been trapped for too long in places that confine them.
An begins with a man (Masatoshi Nagase) in a small cafe cooking red bean paste inside pancakes, otherwise known as Dorayaki. One day an elderly woman asks him for a job. He reluctantly accepts, thinking she is too old and too tired to do the work. She teaches him the fundamental art of cooking red bean paste and eventually his dorayaki become so legendary his cafe is making a tidy profit. That is until it is found out that the old woman Tokue (Kirin Kiki) once had leprosy.
The teacher and student relationship becomes somewhat of a maternal one, while a third person, a high schooler becomes curious about Tokue. The young girl, the old woman and the grown man discover together Tokue’s backstory, being confined and exiled at a young age, never given a chance at a real life, while her only truly happy moment was helping to cook the dorayaki. It is really that simple, that beautiful. If swaying cherry blossoms are something you could look at for many silent minutes in awed appreciation, you might be enlightened enough to take on this film.
Kiki is delightful as Tokue, someone who has every reason to be a bitter and angry person yet chooses instead to tread lightly, smile often, and give of herself whenever possible. That is how she draws two introverts to her, by seeing them as they are and teaching them who they might become.
Because the film is about being trapped inside, much of Kawese’s imagery involves the beauty of outside, even the quiet mostly unacknowledged beauty of something so simple as the wind spinning a plastic bottle or water trickling down a stream. Kiki’s light works well with Nagase’s dark. Though he has no stigma of disease separating him from society he has nonetheless shut himself off, doing nothing but cooking all day and passing out at night after drinking too much.
With Mad Max this morning and An in the evening, I was treated to two films here in Cannes that depict older women in important roles. Not just older as in 40 something, but older as in 70 something. Do they ever appear in American film except to play grandmothers? What a missed opportunity to pretend they don’t exist. Kawase’s film finds the story in this invisible woman. It is a story that matters, one that is rarely told if at all.
How great to see old age treated as what it really should be — experience and knowledge is passed down through stories. Here in America we think of old age as care facilities, Depends, Alzheimer’s and dementia. We don’t think of the value of someone who has lived so long and learned so much passing on to us what we know.
Kawase’s film depicts a world where we are surrounded by so much beauty even if we choose the cage over freedom. It’s there if you know where to look, if you know how to listen, if you’re willing to see it.