Film Review | An (Sweet Red Bean Paste)

The winner of the first edition of the Valletta Film Festival may be almost sacchrine to a fault, but director Naomi Kawase manages to craft a poignant drama out of a highly contrived setup

From left: Kyara Uchida, Kirin Kiki and Masatoshi Nagase in Naomi Kawase’s ‘An’ – winner of Best Film at the Valletta Film Festival
From left: Kyara Uchida, Kirin Kiki and Masatoshi Nagase in Naomi Kawase’s ‘An’ – winner of Best Film at the Valletta Film Festival

Local cineastes finally had their prayers answered – albeit for a brief six-day period – when the Valletta Film Festival graced the capital city between June 15 and 21, presenting a varied programme of contemporary world cinema across various venues – some of them open-air.

Cementing its efforts to present a bona fide festival with the potential to match its European counterparts, the ‘VFF’ also boasted its cadre of awards, delivered to a pack of lucky contenders by a pretty prestigious jury.

So why not start with a chat about the Best Film winner at the very same fest, the sweet – in more ways than one – Japanese entry An (‘Sweet Red Bean Paste’)?

The latest feature film from prolific director Naomi Kawase, An arrived to our shores with some accumulated pedigree already, having opened the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. While its affectionate, broad sweep appears to grasp for a wider audience than her previous films – somewhat challenging explorations of dysfunctional family dynamics and the rift between fact and fiction – An still manages to sieve some poignant angst through its borderline-saccharine setup.

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) runs a small bakery that serves dorayakis – pastries filled with sweet red bean paste (‘an’). When an old lady, Tokue (Kirin Kiki), offers to help in the kitchen he reluctantly accepts – out of a sense of charity for the frail, eager old woman, if nothing else.


But it turns out that Tokue’s insistence for the job is more than justified: her ‘an’ are the best he’s ever tasted, and the neighbourhood seems to agree, as the bakery’s previously meager clientele balloons overnight after she’s allowed dominance of the kitchen.

But as their working relationship develops, the duo open up to reveal old wounds… one of which might undermine everything they’ve managed to build.

A clear link to Kawase’s previous work exists here in the form of Wakana (Kyara Uchida) – a teenager reluctantly raised by an oft-drunk single mother who’s none-too-keen on her only child going off to high school when she could be making more money working.

Wakana fills this key void by sidling up to Sentaro and Tokue as the two get underway in revolutionizing the little bakery; a surrogate daughter of sorts who puts their halting, quirky but productive relationship into keener focus.

In many ways though, Tokue is a grandmotherly figure to both of them, passing on both cooking advice and the kind of hard-won wisdom that can only be dispensed in old age.

But it’s Kirin Kiki’s performance makes all the difference. Conventionally lovable she may be – the Pjazza Teatru Rjal screening was punctuated by charmed “aaawww”-s from the audience whenever she did something old-lady-cute – she’s also fragile to the core, and watching her also comes with a quiet suspense: you know she’s on her way towards crumbling soon.

Some on-the-nose imagery in fact – unfortunately – accompanies this meditation on mortality and the fragility of human relationships (cherry blossoms? Check), but An remains an affecting tale that does good work in addressing an international audience without straining out of shape. Though it may indulge in a platitude or two and allow its pacing to peter out by the end, it remains an affecting journey.

Valletta Film Festivals – The winners

The feature film ‘An’ directed by Naomi Kawase won Best Film at the first edition of the Valletta Film Festival that was held between June 15-21.

In her acceptance speech, transmitted from Japan, Kawase thanked the jury for the award and stated that the film is a very simple story going through the Japanese four seasons, with three generations of actors growing and learning from their interactions. “From the idea of crossing the borders, showing empathy to people around, I thought that it would give a warm feeling to the audience,” she added.

Film Director Roland Joffé (‘The Killing Fields’) presided over the international Jury which included actors Amber Rose Revah, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Laura Kpegli and the director of Cork Film Festival James Mulligan. The festival was attended by more than 5000 people and boasted films from Brazil, Japan, China and Scandinavia countries amongst many others.

Anna Muyleart, director of Brazilian film The Second Mother, won the Best Director award. In her acceptance speech, transmitted via video message, Muyleart said her film reflected the aims of the festival and hoped it conveyed a common humanity.

The documentary film ‘Something Better to Come’ directed by Hannah Polak won Best Documentary award. Receiving the Triton Award during the closing ceremony held at Fort St Elmo, Polak said that she felt privileged to be part of the lives of Yula, her friends and family.

She said she was accepting the award on their behalf, knowing that the recognition that this story had affected so many people was a sign of hope that there was something better to come for the residents of the svalka.

The award for Best Actress went to Kirin Kiki for her role as Tokue in feature film ‘An’ whilst Polish actor Janusz Gajos won Best Actor for his role in the film ‘Body’.

The Best Screenplay award went to Carolina Hellsgard for her film ‘Wanja’ which she also directed. Best Cinematography went to Luis Armanda Arteaga for his elemental imagery in Ixcanul Volcano.

Best Short Film went to the Moldavian entry Market Day. In a recorded message the filmmakers thanked the festival and said the award was an encouragement for their future projects.

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