Movie Review: Sweet Bean (2015)

3 Stars
Sweet Bean (2015)

Sweet Bean (2015)


Director: Naomi Kawase

Cast: Kirin Kiki, Masatoshi Nagase, Kyara Uchida

Synopsis: The manager of a pancake stall employs an old lady as his assistant, despite reservations about her age.

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Food as a metaphor for life is something of a cinematic cliché these days, but Sweet Bean, Naomi Kawase’s bittersweet tale of stalled lives given renewed impetus, shows that there’s still some mileage to be found in it.   The story revolves around Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), who is something of a loner for reasons that only become apparent in the movie’s latter stages.   Each day he makes and sells dorayaki, a Japanese snack made from pancakes and sweet bean paste, from a cramped stall which has room for only four customers.   Apart from a group of schoolgirls, most customers buy their snack through the small window above Sentaro’s griddle, and as he toils impassively in his cramped workspace, he seems impervious to the occasional calls of children at play in the distance.   Life is passing him by, but he doesn’t seem to know or care.

Into his life comes 76-year-old Tokue (Kirin Kiki), attracted by a small advertisement for part-time help in his window.   Tokue is small and birdlike, and her hands are nearly crippled.   After Sentaro politely turns her down due to his concern that the work would be too much for her, she returns with a sample of her sweet bean paste, and he is so impressed by its flavour that he decides to give her a chance.   This means he must turn down schoolgirl Wakana (Kyara Uchido), who sometimes uses Sentaro’s stall as a refuge from her insensitive mother, who would prefer that her daughter get a job instead of pursuing an education.    Tokue’s painstaking method of preparing and cooking the beans quickly yields results, with queues patiently forming outside the stall each morning, and her presence creates an unlikely three-way bond which transforms the lives of Sentaro and Wakana.

Unfolding at a measured, unhurried pace, Sweet Bean finds worth and dignity amongst life’s bystanders, and strives to show that all lives have a purpose even if their owners aren’t always sure what that purpose might be.  Veteran actress Kirin is divine as the humble old lady driven by a quiet determination to overcome the dreadful setbacks life has thrown her way, while Masatoshi’s subtle mastery of body language enables him to convey emotion while remaining largely inexpressive.   Kawase’s, unobtrusive direction perfectly complements their low-key performances and sets the sedate tone of the film which, some might complain, borders on inertia at times, but which is nevertheless always fascinating to watch.   Only a surprisingly pedestrian final act prevents Sweet Bean from being a bona fide classic.

(Reviewed 3rd August 2016)





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