For a festival that, historically, has had problems with representing female filmmakers, Naomi Kawase is one of the few exceptions. The Japanese director has been a longtime favorite on the Croisette, being the youngest ever winner of the Camera d’Or in 1997 for her debut “Suzaku,” taking the Grand Prix a decade later for “The Mourning Forest,” and having had three films at the last five festivals (and serving on the jury in one of the other years).
This year, she’s skipping the Official Competition in favor of opening the Un Certain Regard strand with “An” (which refers to a kind of sweet red bean paste), an adaptation of a novel by one of her former actors, Durian Sukegawa. In typically unhurried Kawase style, it’s a meditation on loneliness, imprisonment, the treatment of the less fortunate in Japan, and dorayaki — two pancakes filled with the substance of the title. Unfortunately, it proves to be as disposable as the snack it revolves around.
Sentaro (“Mystery Train” actor Masatoshi Nagase) runs a modest cafe/store where he cooks and sells dorayaki, as a favor for the widow of a friend who helped him out in tough times. His clientele is small, his only devotee being local schoolgirl Wakana (Kyara Uchida, who starred in Hiroyuki Kore-eda‘s “I Wish“)’ who has a troubled home life, and his sweets mediocre at best. Then, one day, a mysterious old woman, Tokue (Kirin Kiki, another Kore-eda veteran) turns up at the store to apply for the part-time job that Sentaro’s been advertising. She’s 78, and admits to having “crippled” hands, but she’ll work for almost nothing, and knows how to make the most delicious An, far superior to the pre-bought stuff that her new boss has been using. But Tokue is hiding a secret, one that will open up old wounds both for her and for Sentaro.
Though Kawase sets out her typically languorous pace by opening the film with a cigarette break (man goes on roof, man smokes, man comes back down), the film feels like something of a departure in the early stages. In the interactions between her two main figures, there’s a very gentle comedy at play, a sort of Best Exotic Pancake Stand, and it’s a welcome move for a filmmaker who can often be po-faced to a fault. The film’s title isn’t misleading either, with much of the opening hour being devoted to the painstaking depiction of Tokue’s An recipe, to the extent that you’d probably be able to recreate it from memory afterwards. If nothing else, I came out really craving pancakes. The film, of course, retains the strengths of Kawase’s work: the beautiful photography, the very fine work with actors, and a very particular atmosphere.
It also retains the weaknesses, too: a fondness for heavy-handed metaphor (if you imagined that Wakana’s caged bird might eventually pay off, you’d be right), visual lyricism that sometimes feels a touch empty (take a drink every time Kawase cuts to cherry blossom and you’ll be unconscious before the credits), languid pacing, and a rather inelegant approach to storytelling. The latter’s a particular problem here: Tokue’s secret is one that plays into a larger cultural issue of how Japan (and indeed, much of the rest of the world) treated those suffering from a very particular disease, and it’s a heartbreaking one. But it’s clumsily introduced, and both with that and with Sentaro’s afterthought of backstory, the director opts to tell rather than show, through two hefty voiceover-enabled exposition dumps, and it tests the patience even more than the film already did.
The result is that “An” just doesn’t move in the way that the material might suggest, despite the best efforts of the actors (Kirin Kiki is particularly excellent here, her excitement at getting to interact with the world after decades away from it proving palpable). Perhaps in a feint at accessibility — and for better or worse, it is Kawase’s most accessible film to date — she defaults to sentiment, and it mostly feels unearned.
Kawase’s fans, of which there are plenty, are unlikely to be put off, and there’s surely enough here for the film to be worth checking out for them. But for those of us waiting for Kawase to deliver her masterpiece, we’re left with “The Hundred Foot Journey” in arthouse clothing, and that’s not something anyone really wanted. [C-]