The inexplicable inclusion of another Naomi Kawase film in Un Certain Regard has bewildered a great many film critics on the Croisette this year. Her previous feature, “Still the Water,” played Cannes just one year ago, premiering to an array of abrasive pans. Some called it the very worst film of last year’s festival, but it seems that Kawase’s standing with the programming team seems remarkably forgiving and perplexingly stalwart. Her latest efforts, by all accounts a lesser offense but no greater a piece of cinema, is a light and fluffy exercise in sheer sentimentality, the director’s bid to make her version of a film in the style of fellow Cannes regular Hirokazu Kore-eda — minus the rigorous formalism, and plus a lot of schmaltz.
The plot is as follows: Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), a middle-aged seller of dorayaki (a Japanese treat consisting of red bean paste, “an,” sandwiched between two pancakes) is looking for a part-time employee. Tokue (Kirin Kiki), a mysterious elderly woman comes by to apply for the job. He turns her away, assuming that such an old person wouldn’t be suited for work. However, her tenacity, charm, and skill wins out. She returns the next day and informs Sentaro that his pancakes are fine but his “An” needs some serious work, before reaching out to grab a tupperware container full of her own freshly prepared paste. He reluctantly tries it and is aghast at its deliciousness.
The movie is not without some small pleasures, mostly coming from seeing this unlikely person succeed in her plight — but neither character is developed beyond broad characteristics, in spite of them occupying 95% of the film’s taxing two-hour running time.
Sentaro is clearly a man in need of some passion and conviction, and Tokue is just the force he needs to enter his life to inspire him. The trajectory is so preordained that one would do better to sit this one out and pig out on some dorayaki on their own time.
In synonymity with Tokue, the film devotes an extended sequence to the slow process of making perfect red bean paste, and the culinary curious will find themselves more arrested here than elsewhere in the picture — but disappointingly, Kawase even gets this wrong, filming the sequence without the love or attention to detail that would bring us closer to Tokue’s tranquility, patience, and warmth.
In fact, the entire film seems to be filmed on autopilot, efficiently and blandly. The themes of taking greater care with the small things in life, and the infectious zen-like state of mind Tokue shares with Sentaro, is hardly supported by Kawase’s sloppy direction. When it turns out that Tokue is a leper, having wandered off from her quarantined living space, the tearjerking sign lights up, and while the film’s insight into the laws concerning lepers is welcomed (it was illegal for the afflicted to live outside of quarantined colonies until 1996), the way Kawase uses these people and their disease as a source of catharsis for the film’s primary character to learn about the preciousness of life is a morally suspect misstep that betrays An’s otherwise gentle and harmless disposition.
The disconcerting thing here isn’t that Cannes programmed a bad film — that’s certainly nothing new — but that the festival has showcased multiple failures by this one director: films with no stakes that resemble other, better films, many of which don’t make the cut. The slightness of a film like “An” will let it slip through the cracks unscathed, escaping the more volatile criticism surely to de dumped on, say, Gaspar Noe’s “Love” and other more audacious entries in the official selection.
But it’s a programming choice like this that should provoke genuine skepticism about the process behind the curtain. How does something like this beat out films by newer, promising directors? Surely it can’t be Kawase’s tarnished reputation as an artist (it’s been a good while since her more favorably-received documentary work had its day). Or is Cannes’ pool of female filmmakers so shallow that they’d sooner go with a surefire miss than something that will steal the spotlight from the boys’ club. No matter: this is one small peak into the world’s most important, and problematic, film festival. I only wish I had more impassioned instructions on how to make red bean paste, so I could at least cleanse my palette after seeing this film.
“An” premiered last week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.