Naomi Kawase has created a truly inspiring movie which will leave you stunned and feeling empowered. Empowered to make changes in your life right that minute. That is – if you make it till the end of the film as An really is a very slow-paced movie. It’s once again one of those almost meditative films and even me, who loves slow storytelling, found it a bit challenging at times. But please, do yourself a favor and persevere. We all  need the powerful life lesson it delivers at the end. I know I do.

Oh, the beautiful An. I remember my hunt for the screening rights for last years Prague IFF – Febiofest when I was still in charge of the film acquisitions. It was my Mount Everest of sorts and one of my biggest challenges that year. Our program directors very much wanted to screen it and it was given the highest priority. However, getting the rights wasn’t an easy task at all, as it’s not been clear for a very long time if the distributor will make it available for us. Their emails tended to start the same way: thank you for your interest in the beautiful An. I still remember that. When I finally got their yes though, I considered it one of my  biggest accomplishments that year. But what’s most important – An truly is a beautiful movie, which once again proves that sometimes all you need to do for yourself is to sit down and watch a film. And I am so glad we managed to make An part of our program that year.

It is a story of a small darjaki (pancake) bistro manager who hires an elderly woman called Tokue who one day comes to his place looking for some job. After refusing her few times, he changes his mind when she brings him her homemade bean paste – called An – which is used for the pancakes (darjaki) he sells. The manager is astonished and decides to hire her so she can teach him her secret recipe. And as we see, making An the right way truly is a big deal and takes hours and hours to make!

So, here you can find your first life lesson if you will – nothing exceptional is made within a minute. Therefore you’re gonna need to arm yourself with a lot of patience (oh, my forever favorite topic!) – for whatever you are currently working on. The more time and love you give it, the more rewarding it will turn out to be. Write that one down.

When the customers find out how exceptional the new darjaki with Tokue’s secret An recipe are, suddenly long queues start to appear in front of the bistro and they keep growing every day. The manager, naturally pleased by this development, hopes he’ll be able to pay up some of his debts at last, if the business keeps going  this well. But the rumor soon spreads, that Tokue has a leper and is from the leper sanatorium in the city suburbs. Although Tokue claims to be healed, the manager is forced to let her go in the end as his customers disappear literally overnight.

At first we intended this film to be part of the special Culinary Cinema section, however in the end it was featured in the Asian Panorama as the directors felt that despite the film being about food in some respect, it is not exactly a story that would encourage you to go to a fancy dinner afterwards. I see what they meant now! (yes, I’ve only had the chance to see it now *sigh*) But the fact that they thought, it’s more like ‘go drink a little bit of saké somewhere and try not to commit a suicide’ feeling movie, although they of course meant it half a joke, still made me wonder if they even saw the true message of the wonderful story. Because my feelings were completely opposite. Although I do agree you will more likely desire some alone time rather than go to a posh dinner packed with people – they just couldn’t be more right, I give them that! But the overall effect it has on me was more like: Ok, it’s time to start living!

As the story evolves, we find out more about Tokue’s life and about the lives of other leper patients in the sanatorium where she lives. We find that those people had absolutely zero chance for normal life. They had no freedom, no right to decide for themselves, no other option. They were the true prisoners in their own lives, hidden in a sanatorium, excluded from the society entirely. Despite being healed by now. Which is a truly disturbing idea to me and I still can’t quite wrap my head around it when I think of it. I guess the society was just too afraid and unsure what to do with them so they just kept them locked away….? That’s scary, right?! (or if anyone knows more about this, please do tell!)

These are the same people as you and I, with their own dreams, ambitions… and a simple desire to live, who were just not fortunate enough to be granted the health you and I have. Therefore, they’ve never been given any chance to fulfill any of their dreams. Even the most simple ones – like getting a job and being part of the society.

They could not do anything at all. Not any of the things we often find so boring, irritating even or simply making our life more miserable. But Tokue who never had a chance to work is just grateful for the job she has now. A job many of you (me included) would consider just a pain – I mean who wants to be getting up in the middle of the night every day to make some stupid paste?! But she enjoys it enormously despite being absolutely exhausted which is no surprise especially given her age. But again – even a young person would be! And quite possibly would add some not so nice swear-words to that feeling.

Tokue also can’t understand why a person who doesn’t even like sweets (as she finds out one day about the manager) would spend his life doing just that! What a waste of life! Why doesn’t he go and do something he likes?

So, my question for you, my dear is: isn’t it time for us to stop making ourselves prisoners within our own lives? We have all the power to change it, we have all the tools available to do so. No matter how difficult our lives or current situations are, it never is one we could not change. There always is something you can do if you are unhappy about your life. You just need to act. And you are lucky to have the chance to actually make the decision to act. We are not prisoners, nor are we victims. We are fully in charge. Those people were not. And they would give anything to have the choices you have no matter how limited they are, because you still have some. And they would make sure, not to waste them, I can guarantee you that.

We only live once and our life is the greatest gift we have. I don’t know about you, but I would definitely not want to waste it. So, let’s just go and do something meaningful with it. I myself have been a victim of these kind of thoughts many times in my life and have seen so many people who live by them, thinking they can’t change their lives. The truth is, we can do anything we set our mind to. I know that, but even so I need to be reminded sometimes. And this is a very powerful reminder.

If you not feel inspired enough yet, please make sure to watch An. In fact watch it even if you are! It is a beautiful film on so many levels and I am sure it will shake your life.