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Under the blossoming cherry trees, two very different people, Sentaro and Tokue, strike an unlikely friendship. He is a disillusioned man who earns a living by running a tiny dorayaki pancakes restaurant, and she is an adorable, slightly batty elderly lady who is determined to get a job there.

For its opening feature, Un Certain Regard chose An, a low-key feature from Cannes regular Naomi Kawase. A melancholic film about loneliness and blessings in disguise, An is an intimate drama that feels unresolved despite its promising beginning.

When the film starts, Sentaro is reluctant to hire Tokue because of her old age, but quickly changes his mind when he tastes the an (the red bean paste that goes into the doriyaki) she made: her recipe is so delicious that it sends the business booming within days. The initial enthusiasm, however, is short lived, for a rumour starts to spread that she might be a leper. This could cause the restaurant to shut down, but customers have been flocking in since Tokue’s arrival. Sentaro knows he has to take a difficult decision, but he’s torn, which makes him slump back into his usual state of torpor and depression.

If Kawase had stopped there, the film would function really well as a study on loneliness and quiet suffering, exploring the fortuitous ties that can link two strangers – and indeed the first half of the film is strong enough to stand on its own. Instead, the film carries on for another hour, with characters and plot progressively losing focus.

While the decision not to dwell on Sentaro’s sadness is for the best, Tokue has an interesting back-story that deserved to be explored a bit further. She was faced with many difficulties during her lifetime, but didn’t let them hold her back nor prevent her from finding beauty in life. Instead, An reduces her to the role of “angel in disguise”, a trick that feels unnecessary.

The cinematography can only do so much to help the film. The soft lighting lends it a gentle, almost rarefied atmosphere, and the recurring images of nature, with which Tokue entertains a constant dialogue, are really idyllic. Focusing on showing rather than telling, An is a delicate exploration on grief and marginalisation that does not give in to pity. Sadly, it also fails to fully engage with these topics, and the absence of a real reflection on the stigmatisation of lepers, ageism or simply loneliness is very much felt.

The final impression is that of a feature that avoids challenging subjects in favour of a cute and forcibly moving story about an old lady and her positive influence in the lives of other people. While that’s nothing wrong per se, An nevertheless feels like a half-baked effort.

Article originally published in Nisimazine Cannes