Review: Sweet Bean observes a sweet, subtle chemistry between a desperate man with an elderly woman through the making of sweet bean paste for Japanese-classic pancake, dorayaki. Here, sweet bean paste becomes a symbolic connection of present and paste in a frame of troubled people, living in alienation and barely having life.
A young dorayaki vendor, Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase from Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train), lives the same day over and over again from a small, traditional patisserie unhappily. Dispirited, he is only doing this to pay for his past debt to the owner of the patisserie. This whole thing is never been his passion; and, even he never eats a whole dorayaki.
One day, a mysterious 70-something woman comes to him, offering an assistance to be Sentaro’s kitchen assistant, which he reluctantly takes. Tokue (inspiring Kirin Kiki), the elderly woman, immediately makes impact as she begins crafting her sweet bean paste the retro-way in one of possibly the most mouthwatering sequences in this film. With her paste, the ‘new’ dorayaki suddenly becomes a new phenomena around the neighborhood.
Before long, a young school girl from a broken family, Wakana (Kyara Uchida) finds comfort in the patisserie, especially by the presence of Tokue. However, the happiness is short-lived, as a rumor starts to sparkle, unraveling Tokue’s real identity, igniting a conflict I might not want to describe.
Before the conflict embarks, Sweet Bean presents a profound relationship study through silence and occasional warm dialogues between two persons in a small, confined kitchen. In doing so, writer-director Naomi Kawase loves to device close-ups, either to people or food, to evoke sense of intimacy from the undertow. There’s a glory in details as Kawase observes even the tiniest gesture and facial expression to convey emotion. The chemistry between the leads can be felt as it astoundingly filled the screen. More to it, she fluently exposes the paste-making process with precision and close-ups, highlighting a sense of craftsmanship and experience in the air.
Once the conflict embarks, those intimacies are pulled into a new direction. In this phase, Kawase loves to highlight lonesome in pictures; without explicitly mentioning it, but using pictures to present it. The low-key cinematography sparks like a poetry, as if the nature is talking to audiences the way it talks to Tokue. Given the profound presentation in the beginning, those gravitational-pulled revelations weigh Sweet Bean down, making it a little sour but never really wipes off the sweetness that’s already lingered.
In the end, Sweet Bean becomes an allegory of dorayaki itself. It is sweet most of the time, but at some points, it’s cloying and tasteless. Yet, in the end, the sweetness that lingers is what we remembers long after we finish enjoying it.
Sweet Bean (2016)