Sweet Bean - Perth Film Society

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The Perth Film Society have been offering an alternative to your usual multiplex fodder for years now.  They started showing independent and arthouse films (both in English and subtitled) way back in 1999, and moved to their current home in Horsecross 2006.  This larger venue means that although the budgets of the movies they show may sometimes be small, the screen and sound system are not.

Personally, I have nothing against mainstream flicks.  Since the dawn of cinema, some of the greatest films have been studio pictures. From Citizen Kane, made at RKO by Orson Welles, to Christopher Nolan's Inception which he made while signed to Warner.  Film critic Mark Kermode said at the time: 'Inception is proof that people are not stupid, that cinema is not trash, and that it is possible for blockbusters and art to be the same thing'.  Whilst that is certainly the case it is also often true that they can also often be generic and predictable.  Sometimes that's exactly what people (including myself) are looking for, but for the times when I find myself looking for something a little bit more unusual or thought-provoking, I'm glad that places like The Perth Film Society exist.

I think there is a bit of a perception that just because a film is indie, subtitled, or critically acclaimed that it is going to be hard work - something to be appreciated but not necessarily enjoyed.  That is something Jill Moodie and her fellow cinephiles at the film society are working hard to disprove with their thoughtfully selected season of films.

'Sweet Bean' isn't really about pancakes and paste, much in the same way as 'Citizen Kane' isn't really about a sledTake tonight's film, 'Sweet Bean', for example.  A foreign language film that revolves around the manufacture of pancakes and sweet bean jelly isn't perhaps the most obvious choice for a blistering night of entertainment.  However, 'Sweet Bean' isn't really about pancakes and paste, much in the same way as 'Citizen Kane' isn't really about a sled.

The main character in Sweet Bean is Sentaro, a hard-drinking, hard smoking proprietor of a stall selling a popular Japanese confection called dorakyaki.  This delicious looking treat consists of two pancake style patties enveloping a sweet red bean paste.  It is clear from the mouthwatering shots of Sentaro cooking, that he takes immense pride in his work.  The only problem is the bean paste which despite much experimentation he just can't seem to get right. Instead, he orders in bulk vats of commercially produced paste.  

At this point, an old woman named Tokue steps into the frame applying for a part-time job.  Sentaro is initially resistant to the idea of hiring a woman in her mid-seventies, particularly as she has deformed hands which could make the work difficult.  For some reason Tokue is unrelenting, and Sentaro eventually agrees to take her on when he tastes the delicious bean paste that she prepares for him.

It's a beautiful looking film, with the earlier scenes being dominated by shots of cherry blossom that prettify the urban landscape surrounding Sentaro's dorakyaki stall.  Cherry blossom trees have an enormous significance in Japanese culture, partly because of their beauty but also because of their fragility and fleeting nature.  They even have a tradition called 'hanami', which literally means 'watching blossoms'. 

As the relationship between Setaro and Tokue develops, we discover that they both are haunted by their pasts. The human kindness that they show each other acts as a salve on their psychological wounds.  This relationship is cemented by the friendship of Wakana, a school girl with a slightly troubled home life who hangs out at the pancake shop.  However, it wouldn't be a film without conflict and soon rumours start to spread about what caused Tokues deformed hands, and the mini-utopia that exists within the dorakyaki stall is shattered.

If this all sounds a bit grim and serious, the story is leavened by some lovely sweet natured humour, particularly in the earlier stages.  Setaro's reactions to Tokue's bean preparation ritual left the audience tickled.  He looks puzzled when, after adding sugar to the recipe she insists that they leave the pot to sit for hours.  "We have to let the beans get used to the sweetness", she says in justification.  

There is also great importance placed on the redemptive power of work, The ultimate feeling you are left with as the final credits roll is one of redemption and hope. particularly when you are doing something you truly love or at least finding a way to love it.  Also, the film is subtly subversive in the way it deals with the relationship between the older lady and younger man.  Traditionally in films, the older protagonist plays the sage-like role and the younger character just soaks it up like a sponge. It's very much a one-way street.  Think Mr Myagi in 'The Karate Kid' or even Obi-Wan in Star Wars.  However, in 'Sweet Bean' it feels like Setaro and Tokue are equals, true friends, not just mentor and student.

It's quite hard to talk in too much detail about a film without giving away spoilers, but I think it's fair to say that there are a couple of moments that could bring a tear to the eye.  The ultimate feeling you are left with as the final credits roll is one of redemption and hope, and if that's not a good feeling to leave the cinema with, then I don't know what is.

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