Sunday, 8 May 2016

An (Sweet Red Bean Paste) (2016) - Movie Review


Okay, okay, I’m awake!

Ugh. It’s been over a week since I watched this thing, and I only just now woke up from it. How amazing that I can manage to publish reviews even in my sleep. That’s not stupid or anything. Regardless, get out your pillows, folks; we’re in for the long stretch.

The plot: Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is a dorayaki cook who, on a whim, brings on senior citizen Tokue (Kirin Kiki) as a co-worker after being impressed by her An, or sweet red bean paste. Her cookery skills bring in masses of customers, but it seems that a secret from her past could end up ending this relationship in its tracks.

Japanese cinema, at its core, has a certain aspect of elongated and more meditative story pacing; otherwise, it’s either based off of an anime/manga series or involves Yoshihiro Nishimura, Japan’s main source of arterial power hoses. With this in mind, I went into today’s film already under the impression that I wouldn’t approve of it, as I’ve shown a certain disinterest in slower movies. That said, this is a very well-made film at the very least. Shigeki Akiyama’s camera work is of the same brand as a lot of moving pictures-style filmmakers but, this time around, the picturesque framing and imagery actually works. The film’s main theme is that of finding contentment in everyday life, and it certainly does a good job at making the natural scenery look as beautiful as possible. The score by David Hadjadj is just drop-dead gorgeous, with very delicately-applied strings and pianos to give a definite feeling of tranquillity to the production. I don’t know what it is about this film’s approach of making beautiful-looking film and why it works so well, given how I seriously have a problem with overtly visual directors, but Naomi Kawase has a definite touch when it comes to how it all looks.

Then the film itself starts… very, very, almost tortuously slowly. But, again, slow films just aren’t for me; I may hate objectivity, but I have at least some clarity on objective talent. However, this kind of crosses that line for me and I actively feel like this just doesn’t work. All the drawing out of character actions and camera takes would still be acceptable if it resulted in some satisfying pathos, but this seems to have a rampant allergy with anything involving tension. There is absolutely zero conflict to be found here. The closest we get to an antagonist is the shop’s owner (Miyoko Asada), and even then the few problems she brings up with Sentaro are pretty much discarded by the end of the scene. Things just kind of happen for an hour and a half (which with the pace makes it feel like it’s taking twice as long), which I’m assuming is meant to be this film trying to convey something closer to real life. All fine and good, except even when you’re trying to highlight the simple pleasures of life, there still needs to be something to rub against the grain and create the story. Unless you’re a security guard in charge of looking over CCTV footage, no-one is willing to watch recorded footage of mundane day-to-day bullshit, especially if it’s fictional mundane day-to-day bullshit.

And yet, the focus on the mundane would be perfectly fine; like I said, this film is all about finding a Zen in one’s own life. The problem is that, in contrast to the trudging pace, the script keeps bouncing between different thematic elements. There’s a connection made between Sentaro and Tokue about their respective reasons for isolation, with Sentaro’s criminal past and Tokue’s bout with leprosy, which honestly makes for the few solid dramatic moments in the film. Speaking of leprosy, there’s also a subplot about Tokue having leprosy and whether she is a danger to the people around her, providing some potential insights on prejudice. Or there’s the shop owner’s nephew who comes and they decide to renovate the shop, stepping on Sentaro’s now stable existence. Given the growth his character goes through, this could serve as a good final beat where the event triggers a climactic decision on Sentaro’s part.

Unfortunately, while the film juggles all these elements (and others), it never takes the time to focus on any of them. As a result, not only do none of them create any real lasting effect in the overall vibe of the film, but they’re never even given the chance to do so. If it focused on just the titular food and using it as a way to connect Sentaro and Tokue, that’d be fine; I wouldn’t have enjoyed it personally, but there would be definite merit to it. Instead, it tries the scattershot technique and just hope that it hits a heart string with as many rounds as it can manage, and yet missing with all of them due to lack of aim. This isn’t helped by the fact that the basic plot of the film is the tired “kooky old senior citizen meets miserable adult and inspires them/each other” brand that plays out to every beat on that particular scale. The ending especially (*SPOILERS*) where Tokue not only dies but refers to Sentaro as the son she never had… or possibly the son she did have; it’s portrayed that confusingly it’s hard to tell.

This is where the film’s approach and the film’s intent end up colliding rather noisily into each other, and end up decimating each other in the process. In terms of its writing, its premise of a man finding joy in his life and his work again is good and has potential for major feels. However, the writer/director doesn’t seem so comfortable with simplicity as she keeps cramming all these tidbits into the plot that, ultimately, go nowhere. This film is based on a novel of the same name, and having not read it myself I won’t try and guess at its own efficacy, but given Kawase’s lauded ability for simple yet thematic story-telling, I’m going to charitably chalk this up to adaptation deterioration. I get that not every story has to be this big world-shaking epic and that more domestic plotting has its place, but you can’t try and convey simplicity and complexity with this broad a stroke. I’m guessing the pointless subplots just add up to the general fabric of life, but real life still has conflict; it still has issues that need to be resolved, one way or another, and this keeps trying to just ignore all that for Zen in the Art of Red Bean Paste-Making.

I’d call this film pretentious with how it tries to espouse empty platitudes about the human condition, except it’s not even good enough at that to warrant the label. At least pretentious films are very overt about their intended message, whereas this doesn’t even know where to start. I had similar pacing issues with last year’s Far From Men, but that still had astoundingly good writing at its core; it wasn’t executed too well, but it had an actual brain to its body of work. This not only fails to engage, but it doesn’t bring any adequate reasons why we should engage in the first place.

All in all, even as someone who is already unfavourable towards this style of story-telling, I can’t help but see faults showing up all over this film. The acting is decent, the direction is technically perfect and there were a few moments that moved me emotionally. But otherwise, it’s a great big sea of beige ready to engulf the audience as they try and wade through a unnecessarily complicated narrative about the simple pleasures of life. It’s rare that I get to see a film swallow its own tail as badly as this one did.

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