Naomi Kawase’s filmmaking has thus far existed in a kind of prestigious limbo: Though beloved of festival selectors, particularly those at Cannes, even her most glitteringly rewarded works have largely failed to seduce international distributors. That could change with “An,” a soft-centered ode to the virtues of patience, tolerance and bean-filled pancakes that is easily her most accessible film to date — at little if any cost to her trademark lyricism. Incorporating elements from two steadfast arthouse subgenres — feel-good food porn and autumn-years tearjerker — this winsome tale of the unlikely bond between a solitary confectioner with no sweet tooth and a plucky septuagenarian with culinary magic in her frail fingertips remains too leisurely and low-key for major crossover success. Still, this year’s Un Certain Regard opener will end up being many auds’ introduction to the more austere poetry of Kawase’s filmography.
The word “an” translates as “sweet red bean paste” — which, at one point, was the film’s far more evocative English-language moniker in publicity materials. Any distribs in non-native territories would be well advised to go with a translation, though the enigmatic two-letter moniker does at least fit its creator’s usual impulse to fit as much description and implication into as few words as possible.
A consistent underlying concern of Kawase’s cinema has been the unspoken bond between man and his environment. Though based on a novel by Durian Sukegawa, “An” follows suit, with food here serving as an extension of nature. “Listen for the stories the beans tell,” the pic’s elderly heroine earnestly advises her younger employer, as she teaches him how to make the eponymous paste. It’s a line you wouldn’t hear outside a Kawase joint, save, perhaps, for the most opaque stretches of latter-day Malick. Those who cringe reflexively at such New Age sentiment won’t find much to appreciate here, though “An’s” fey sincerity isn’t in question.
Marshmallowy clusters of cherry blossom flood the screen in the film’s opening frames; the trees will serve as both a symbolic motif and a seasonal marker of time throughout. Still, middle-aged loner Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase, in what may become his most internationally visible turn since Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train”) is not feeling the joys of spring: His dutiful maintenance of a fixed routine masks a sordid past for which he’s still paying an arduous debt. As a maker and vendor of dorayaki — teacup-sized pancakes sandwiched with an — he serves a modest but loyal customer base, enduring the gentle teasing of local schoolgirls with stoic good humor.
Arriving with the blossom, however, is eccentric 76-year-old Tokue (the delightful Kirin Kiki), who answers his ad for a store assistant. Though he initially rejects her request, deeming her too fragile to take on the heavy lifting the job requires, his interest is piqued when she points out a hitherto unaddressed flaw in his dorayaki: The factory-made an filling that, she claims, is no match for her methodically home-cooked version. Cue a loving, lengthy montage of bean-paste preparation that will have even the uninitiated hankering for one of these improved pancakes. Kawase and d.p. Shigeki Akiyama shoot caramelizing pulses and dollops of frying batter with the same ritualistic reverence the helmer applied to repeated scenes of goat slaughter in last year’s “Still the Water.” Needless to say, the outcome here is far more appetizing.
Tokue is duly hired, and a summer of brisk business ensues as word of her wondrous paste spreads through the community. However, Tokue harbors a secret of her own: She, too, has endured a life of social isolation, albeit for more innocent reasons than those of her boss and newfound friend. As uncharitable rumors about her circulate as swiftly as the earlier endorsements did — thanks to an accidental slip by Wakana (Kyara Uchida), a shy teenage customer also enraptured by the old woman’s benevolence — Tokue is forced to retreat from society by autumn.
As the two principals work through their respective feelings of loss and resignation, the final act of the film takes a tone-poem form familiar from Kawase’s most esoteric work: The courses of humanity and nature entwine in a series of whispery, exquisitely composed sequences of time and foliage alike in transition. (No prizes for guessing, meanwhile, what happens to the heavily signposted symbol of Wakana’s caged canary.) Just as “An” itself seems on the verge of flying away, however, Kawase rewards her audience with an unapologetically contrived but effectively eye-moistening surge of feeling. She is enabled to no small degree by the finely drawn work of her actors, including young Uchidan (Kiki’s real-life granddaughter), whose character bears the somewhat heavy weight of the film’s “find your own path” moralizing.
Below the line, “An” is crafted with Kawase’s characteristic preference for deliberate rhythms and organic naturalism: Here is a director, one suspects, who would never resort to an from a can. Akiyama’s airy lensing fully exploits the ample pictorial possibilities of Kawase’s chosen imagery — there’s no room for jagged edges or synthetic shades. David Hadjadj’s lacy, piano-based score sometimes overeggs the pancake, so to speak, but after the oppressively introverted nature of Kawase’s last few films, catering too much to the audience seems a forgivable error.