An is a film that practices what it preaches. Writer/director Naomi Kawase takes her time preparing the ingredients of her movie, giving them the time they need to ripen and letting the story settle organically into a rich and bittersweet flavor. A subtle melancholy hangs over a humble story allowing unexpected moments of to fill you with an immediate warmth, and dread how easily they could be taken away. But despite the grace with which An builds its emotional complexity, once the story does unfold it lingers far too long on one somber status quo and fails to keep the attention it so carefully garnered.
Based on Durian Sukegawa’s book of the same name, An (also known by its unfortunately long-winded English title, Sweet Red Bean Paste) is a tale of three lonely souls and the pancake shop at which their lives intersect. Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) drifts with palpable discontent through his life making doriyaki (small pancakes filled with that sweet titular filling) at a small store he was burdened with. Among the giggling teenage customers is the quiet Wakana (Kyara Uchida), who’s difficult home life has her spending a lot of time at the store and finding a quiet kinship with the downhearted pancake chef. When Tokue (Kirin Kiki), a mid-seventies woman with crippled hands, turns up looking for a job exclaiming her dream of wanting to work in such a store, Sentaro knows she won’t be able to keep up with the labor intensive job and is forced to turn her away. But determined to win him over, Tokue turns up again to blow Sentaro away with a sample of her bean paste. They come to an agreement: she can make the paste and he’ll do all the heavy lifting.
In these early moments, An seems a love letter to making doriyaki, showing the transformation of a dispassionate cook discovering an artistic practice and a new, incredible flavour. Delving slightly into the realm of food-pornography, An relishes in showing every step of the process in glorious detail with mouth-watering imagery and heart-warming enthusiasm from Tokue. Kawase’s muted color palate, the quite, atmospheric soundscape, and the calm and slow pacing of her scenes all create a modest and grounded canvas, which serves to highlight the unassuming satisfaction you feel for Sentaro and Tokue as you witness a job well done.
An does a wonderful job in lulling you into a safe and comfortable position before it sticks the knife in. Swelling with pride for the store’s newfound popularity, Sentaro’s unfamiliar contentment soon dissipates when he learns the reason Tokue was never allowed to work growing up. As her secret starts to get out he’s forced into a position where he has to choose between the store and the wonderful woman who made it a success.
Kiki’s Tokue is impossibly lovely, a charming innocent even in the face of persecution. As Sentaro goes into denial about his situation, Tokue happily picks up the pieces leaving your heart to break as you ponder her inevitable rejection. She’s a woman who wants for so little, and Kiki never gives you the impression Tokue is anything but grateful and excited for every fleeting second she gets to contribute.
While it’s Kiki’s endearing personality that lines up the punch, it’s Nagase’s broken Sentaro that really hits you in the gut. While you dread what his betrayal could do to Tokue, it’s Sentaro’s guilt that overwhelms the story. Nagase introduces you to an already broken man, staring blankly at the hotplate as he cooks a dish he never even liked (at least until he tried Tokue’s An). While still grumpy and distant, the brief glimpses of satisfaction you see him with as he absorbs Tokue’s radiating energy can’t help but bring a smile to your face. So to does it tear you up when you see him drinking himself half to death and go into hiding rather than face up to what he has to do.
The film builds to an emotionally complex impasse, pounding on your chest despite Kawase’s stoic presentation. But then, after reaching its apex, it just keeps on going. And going. While the fallout of the climax is not without poignant moments for its cast, and the film’s final moments of reconciliation are indeed wonderful, it’s simply too early a peak and the plodding second half quickly begins to undo the good of the first.
Anticipating the meal to come, it’s easy to be patient while the food is being prepared, but once you’ve been served you don’t want to be left waiting another hour for the bill. While multifaceted brooding and personified national guilt are the name of An’s game (and these themes very much continue throughout the film), there’s simply too little to engage the audience beyond the movie’s initial arc. Despite some incredibly strong material and an all-too-rare emotional maturity, Kawase’s latest would be a powerful film pending a heavy edit, but dangers far too close to tiresome in its current state.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10