Two current films from Asia provide heartfelt, instructive pictures of relationships in the twenty-first century. No matter where we live, the lessons of life surround us. But will we learn . . . or lose.
"Sweet Bean" is a small story, well told. Japanese cinema is dotted with such beautiful, slow moving classics that dare us to sit still to let common, miniature tales of life unfold, teaching us lessons far beyond patience and focus. Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" and Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Woman of the Dunes" are recognized as such masterpieces. Hovering a bit closer to sentimentality than profundity, "Sweet Bean" successfully mines this sure handed approach, unfolding at a leisurely, almost self-indulgent pace.
Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) prepares dorayaki pastries filled with sweet red bean paste. He sells them to school children and locals from his boss's small shop. Sentaro has posted a help wanted sign, though the shop's sparse patronage would hardly seem to justify assistance.
Tokue (Kirin Kiki) stops by to offer her help. Sentaro is hesitant because of her age (76), visible frailty and scarred hands. But Tokue warms to the task, arriving daily at the tiny restaurant before dawn. Her cooking skills improve the dorayaki's sweet bean paste. Soon crowds are lining up outside before the shop even opens. But more than sumptuous recipes and respect for the art of cooking, Sentaro learns from the trials of Tokue's life how he might make his own troubled past more palatable.
Their fragile relationship and thin story is framed by Naomi Kawase's firm direction and Shigeki Akiyama's stunning black and white cinematography of cherry trees in blossom, the promise of ripening fruit.
Unlike the sweetness of "Sweet Bean," the central relationship in "Fireworks Wednesday" appropriately seems incendiary. Husband Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) and wife Mozhde (Hediyeh Tehrani) are engaged in a running battle.
When a new house cleaner is sent to clean their apartment, she finds chaos: a mess of boxes, a broken window and Morteza's hand bandaged from their fight over his alleged infidelity. Mozhde claims Morteza is having an affair with the neighboring hair salon operator Simin ( Pantea Bahram) . Morteza claims his wife is having paranoid fantasies, driving him crazy with embarrassment.
The new housekeeper becomes an unwitting agent of the broken relationship. She and her fiancé, as well as salon operator Simin and her husband become foils for Morteza and Mozhde's domestic fireworks. They are emblematic of three stages of relationship: betrothal, marriage and divorce. Will the backdrop of firework's celebrating Persian New Year celebrate a new beginning for Morteza and Mozhde?
As he did so deftly in "A Separation" (2011 Academy Award, Best Foreign Film) and "The Past"(2013), Asghar Farhadi has given us a finely textured, full bodied drama of middle class life in Iran.
From Teheran to Tokyo, simple lessons and mundane relationships are often more accessible in foreign films than in the U.S. where are cinema is more busy saving the world than improving the lives of those who live in it.