It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Director Naomi Kawase is a Cannes Film Festival favorite whose work rarely reaches American shores. Since 1997, four of her films have competed for the Palme d’Or, and she has won the Golden Camera and the Jury Prize. Her latest film, “Sweet Bean," which competed in last year’s Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, is getting a bigger U.S. release than any of her prior work, and it’s easy to see why. This is the kind of film that wins festival audience awards—a gentle, unassuming work that's simple, emotional story has the potential for arthouse sleeper status.
“Sweet Bean” doesn’t go anywhere the viewer isn’t expecting, but I did not mind taking the trip. It’s a movie about food and the joys of a good day’s work, two of my cinematic sweet spots. I love watching people do their jobs onscreen, and I’m always hungry. There’s a special cinema subgenre that caters to moviegoers like me, the foodie movie. Films like “Babette’s Feast” and “Big Night” represent the high-water mark, while the recent Bradley Cooper vehicle “Burnt” languished near the bottom. “Sweet Bean” falls somewhere in the middle, though it gets extra points for evoking memories of “Big Night's" classic omelette-making final scene.
Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) runs a small dorayaki shop, where he cooks the pancake-based snack for a small group of schoolgirls who frequent the establishment. Dorayaki are a sandwich-like treat made of two pancakes held together by a large dollop of an, the sweet bean paste of the title. Sentaro rises early to create the perfectly shaped tiny pancakes he uses for his dorayaki. Any rejects that do not meet his criteria become “discards” that he hands out for free. The camera treats Sentaro’s griddle work like a sacred ritual; it lovingly ogles each measured spoonful of batter hitting the grill. We drool.
One of the schoolgirls, Wakana (Kyara Uchida), inquires about the Help Wanted sign in the shop’s window, a sign that doesn’t seem necessary given the small customer base. Her competition for the job is Tokue (Kirin Kiki), a senior citizen who stops by the shop to sample Sentaro’s wares. A 50-year veteran of making dorayaki, Tokue offers up a valid criticism: the pancakes are good, but the an is sub-par. Her expert palette is insulted further when she discovers Sentaro’s an comes from the supermarket. She demands that Sentaro either make the an from scratch, or hire her to do it for him. When he declines her help, Tokue drops off some of her homemade filling. Sentaro tries it, and is so stunned by its flavor that he hires her.