Tag Archives: social film

Sweet Bean (An, Japan-France-Germany 2015)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tukue (Kiki Kirin) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

The three principal characters: (from left) Wakana (Uchida Kyara), Tokue (Kirin Kiki) and Setaro (Nagase Matososhi)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, the Japanese director Naomi Kawase divides film critics and audiences. A regular presence at Cannes, her films have until recently been seen only at festivals in much of the English-speaking world. It wasn’t until Still the Water from 2014 that she achieved a UK release. Despite all her international festival prizes (or perhaps because of them?), Kawase’s films often attract descriptions such as ‘pretentiousness’ and ‘lacking in narrative drive’. Critics also seem to be put off by her interests in ecology and spiritual connections (which with my limited knowledge I see as traditionally Japanese). Some critics have also put her alongside Terrence Malick in respect of these traits. Her new film has attracted some of the same comments and at 113 minutes its telling of a simple story does suggest a slow pace. However, it didn’t feel slow to my viewing companion and me. We loved the film and both shed some tears – it has also been deemed ‘sentimental’ by detractors, but many in the general audience for the film will like it very much.

The film begins with the morning ritual of a solitary man in his late 40s who is preparing to open his small shop selling dorayaki – sweet red bean paste (the an of the title) sandwiched between simple sweet pancakes. His loyal customers are mainly local schoolgirls but this morning Tokue, a woman in her 70s, drops by enquiring after the part-time job he has advertised. The man (whose name is Sentarô, but who is most of the time simply ‘Boss’) attempts the classic ‘put-off’ strategy to avoid offending Tokue, telling her there is heavy lifting, long hours, low pay etc. She accepts a sample dorayaki and reluctantly leaves only to return the next day with a sample of her own home-made bean paste which she has been making for fifty years. He eventually tastes it and discovers that it is delicious and far superior to the factory-made stuff he buys in. From here on the storyline will be familiar up until the point when we begin to find out more about the three main characters. The backstories are perhaps rather unexpected and though the film’s resolution is fairly conventional, the second half of the film does deliver some insights into Japanese culture as well as exploring more universal concerns.

From the cover of the novel 'Les délices de Tokyo'

From the cover of the novel ‘Les délices de Tokyo’

This is the first time Naomi Kawase has adapted a novel, I think. Many Japanese films are literary adaptations and Durian Sukegawa’s novel was published in France under the title of Les délices de Tokyo (also the film title in France). As with many film festival regulars, Naomi Kawase finds her major overseas support in France and An, like Still the Water is a French co-production. The novel seems to fit Kawase’s overall approach and her interest in the moon and trees seems perfectly in tune with the main story. The film is located in a Tokyo district with enough spare ground for a plantation of cherry trees and the narrative opens (and closes) with a display of cherry blossom. As many reviewers have noted the cherry blossom signifies both the passage of time (a wonderful shot when the roads are covered in blossom fall) and also something about the importance of seasons and the true bond between humans and the natural world. My favourite line in the film was a reference to a brand of sea salt, “dried under the moon on a southern island”.

Tokue makes dorayaki

Tokue makes dorayaki

The cherry blossom reminded me of the German film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom, Germany/France 2008) which shares some of the same elements – and received a similar mixed critical response. Like Kirschblüten, Sweet Bean is a film about (broken) family relationships. The third main character is a schoolgirl, Wakana who lives with her mother in a nearby apartment. Wakana is separated from the other girls at school who are cramming for entrance exams for college/university as her mother wants her to leave to earn money. The dorayaki shop is a refuge for her and eventually she will become the initially unwitting agent of the changes in the narrative. As the back stories emerge, we also realise that Tokue and Sentarô are in some ways in a surrogate mother-son relationship. The performances of all three central characters are excellent and the actors Kiki Kirin (Tokue) and Uchida Kyara (Wakana) are actually grandmother and grand-daughter. I was disappointed after the screening to discover that I ought to have recognised both of them because of the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu and that reference seems particularly apt as Sweet Bean would be likely to appeal to the (growing) audiences entranced by Kore-eda’s recent films including Our Little Sister (Japan 2015). Nagase Matososhi) who plays Sentarô is another very experienced Japanese actor and together the trio convey the precise mood that Kawase seeks to create.

Sentaro and Wakana

Sentaro and Wakana

I won’t spoil the second half of the narrative by explaining the social issue involved. It was a surprise to me – but then aspects of Japanese society are often surprising. I’ve seen Sweet Bean dismissed partly because it is seen as an example of ‘food porn’. This strikes me as a particularly crass comment. My experience is that Japan (like several other non-Anglo cultures) has preserved an interest in traditional food culture (as well as embracing a bewildering array of convenience foods) and that these are appreciated by the majority of the population. Japanese culture is also strong in terms of presentation, so there is a desire to make even inexpensive foods attractive. In Sweet Bean we have both alcohol in plastic from a vending machine and sweet cakes dispensed from a traditional shop space – the old and the new together. I seem to remember that there is a big emphasis on food as part of family and friendship culture in Kore-eda’s films as well. If critics don’t like Sweet Bean, I suspect that their take on food is not very reliable either.

London Indian Film Festival #1: Josh (Against the Grain, Pakistan-US 2012)

Josh

Josh is the first of three screenings of films from the 2013 London Indian Film Festival to be shown ‘on tour’ at the National Media Museum in Bradford and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Screening at 6pm during Ramadan is possibly not a real test of its popular appeal and the local Urdu-speaking audience was not in evidence. For audiences more used to popular Punjabi comedies at the local multiplexes the film may not have appealed even without the difficulties created by religious observance. Josh has been described as a ‘social drama’ and that is a reasonable description of a narrative that takes in class differences, feudalism, violence by the rich towards the poor, the empowerment of women and the youth movement in Pakistani politics. ‘Popular’ themes like the relationship problems of young men and women are included somewhat lower down the priority list.

JOSH

Iram Parveen Bilal on set in Pakistan

Writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal is an American-trained filmmaker (ten years in the US) who returned to Pakistan to make this film based on important local news stories about women as both victims and forceful agents of change. One of the problems about discussing the film is that the Pakistani film industry is still in the early stages of recovery from long-term decline. My local Bradford contact, with direct experience of Pakistani film and television culture, explained to me that in her view cinema was still not really respectable amongst the Pakistani upper middle classes. Television with its long-form narratives is still dominant. This perhaps explains the presence of several women as directors in a Pakistani film industry that is not fully ‘institutionalised’ – and why the lead role in this film is played by one of the big stars of Pakistani TV, Aamina Sheikh.

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

Fatima (approaching from the background) and a local street artist

The plot outline of Josh sees Fatima (Aamina Sheikh) as a wealthy young woman in Karachi, still living at home with her widowed father, a leading lawyer. Fatima is a teacher in an English-medium secondary school. She hasn’t married, but has a boyfriend Adil, an aspiring artist who may be about to leave for America. She has friends in the Westernised milieu of upper middle class Karachi and is introduced to Uzair, a rising politician representing the Pakistan Youth Party. Uzair is played by Aamina Sheikh’s real-life husband Mohib Mirza (also a well-known actor in Pakistan). The equilibrium of Fatima’s comfortable life is disrupted by the disappearance of her ex-nanny Nusrat, a woman who has been heavily involved in trying to alleviate the suffering of her home village community outside Karachi. When Fatima discovers what has happened to Nusrat (who she considers her ‘second mother’), she finds herself in conflict with the village landlord and his group of armed thugs. Who will help Fatima – her father,  Adil or Uzair or her other friends? Can the villagers help themselves in their struggle?

This bald outline of the plot connects Josh to Hindi social films and Indian parallel cinema. It isn’t a ‘popular film’ in the Indian sense. Although there is some use of music that might correspond to contemporary Bollywood (i.e. in a montage sequence as might be found in independent Indian films), on the whole the music is used more in a Western mode – and there are no dance sequences. In fact I was a little disappointed in the music soundtrack, a mixture of Pakistani songs and Western film scoring. Despite the presence of Pakistani star names, the film has a low budget feel. The image was soft (and appeared to be projected from a DVD or Blu-ray disc) but more of a giveaway was the uneven sound recording. In one scene involving a conversation between two people, the background sound was completely different for each of the speakers in the same location. A quick glance online reveals that Bilal as producer-director had great difficulty getting financial support together and that the film’s completion was dependent on funds from Netflix administered through The Women in Film Foundation.

Given Ms Bilal’s difficulties in raising funds – and the important nature of her social issues-based themes – I’m a little reluctant to criticise the film. I will say that I was engaged throughout and the emotion of at least one scene brought me to tears. On the downside, I didn’t enjoy some of the montages that used ‘flash editing’ – sequences comprising shots only a few frames long, producing a kind of strobe effect. I could work out what they were supposed to mean but they still irritated. Equally, I was dismayed when I learned after the screening that the lead actors were married when they created so little erotic energy on screen. The rest of the cast seemed much more ‘authentic’ – perhaps there is a clash of acting styles? Overall, I think that the film tries to do too much and in doing so loses some of its potential to move the audience.

In trying to categorise/classify the film it is worth considering Ms Bilal as a diaspora filmmaker. The film’s narrative makes only limited references to studying/working abroad, themes common to some of Mira Nair’s films (The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding etc.) but there are aspects of the film that suggest American style filmmaking and several of the key technical staff work mainly in the US. It seems unfair to compare a young filmmaker with established names such as Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta – and anyway the context of filmmaking in the sub-continent has changed markedly since those directors made their first Indian films back in the 1980s and 1990s respectively. Thinking about the national identity of the film also means that a more appropriate reference point might be a Pakistani diaspora director such as Jamil Dehlavi (Jinnah 1998). We might ask why the London Indian Film Festival decided to include a Pakistani film for the first time. Personally, I’m glad they did because I got a chance to see it. A release in both India and Pakistan has been announced for the Eid festival period. I fear for the film’s reception in India and I’m not sure what to expect when it is seen in Pakistan. It has however been a festival success, first at Mumbai in October 2012 and then at various other festivals.

Iram Parveen Bilal is clearly a talent to watch and there are various ways in which to explore her background. She has a website here. The official website for the film lists many of the positive reviews. Here is the trailer from the London Indian Film Festival:

And here is a set of interviews with the filmmakers. Bilal herself describes the film as a ‘mystery thriller’:

The social issues that the film tackles are very important and the current coverage of the campaign led by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who refused to be silenced by the Taliban emphasises the auspicious timing of the film’s release. Josh didn’t start out as a feature film and it will be interesting to see if by presenting the social debates in this way they get wider coverage and more attention. Despite its flaws, it would be good if it attracted audiences in the sub-continent and in the UK.