The celebrated Japanese director, Naomi Kawase, will chair the Cinefondation and Short Films Jury at the 69th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which begins on May 11.
Kawase is one of those helmers whose career has been closely intertwined with the festival. In 1997, when she was barely 27 years old, she became the youngest winner of the festival’s Camera d’Or for her movie, Suzaku -- which sketches the despair of a family in the mountainous region of Nara after a railroad project that was to have employed the father is cancelled leaving him and his dependants in economic deprivation.
Kawase’s early accolade at Cannes led to still greater recognition. Four of her subsequent films went on to compete for the top Palm d’Or at the festival: Shara in 2003, The Mourning Forest in 2007, Hanezu in 2011 and Still the Water in 2014.
In 2015, Kawase’s Sweet Bean (or An in Japanese) opened the A Certain Regard, the most important sidebar of the festival. Here she focusses on those marginalised by society and how they struggle to find a place under the sun. The work is based on Durian Sukegawa’s novel with the same title and it tells the bitter-sweet story of a 76-year-old woman who finds it difficult to get a job because she once had leprosy. However, one fine day, luck smiles and she is employed by a small eatery that specialises in bean paste goodies, and the old woman’s recipe is so hot that the shop becomes a great favourite of the locals.
Unlike most of her other movies that were set in Kawase’s native Nara, Sweet Bean unfolds in Tokyo.
The helmer, who grew up in rural Nara, had an unhappy childhood. Her parents split, her father abandoned her, and she was raised by an aunt with whom she had a love-hate relationship. Two of her documentaries talk about her father and her aunt, who suffered from dementia in her old age.
Even Kawase’s features are pretty autobiographical and they have been heavily inspired by the rural landscape of the hilly Nara and the attitude of the simple folks there.
In 2013, Kawase was part of the Steven Spielberg-chaired international jury at Cannes.
Kawase’s work goes beyond direction. In 2010, she opened the International Nara Film School, which helps promote the work of young moviemakers -- a commitment that she will be keen to uphold during her presidency of the Cinefondation and Short Films Jury.
As she said in a note soon after she was selected by Cannes this year, “short films are exceptionally difficult, facing the question of how much of a story can be experienced in their short duration, while they also contain myriad possibilities yet unseen. And among movies created by students there will be the discovery of hidden brilliance like a gemstone, which makes me very much look forward to participating in this jury, a journey of adventure.”