Alumni Profile

Cannes Do Spirit

No harm in trying, USC student filmmaker David Greenspan figured as he entered his student film project, Bean Cake, in the cinema world’s most prestigious competition. Most of Greenspan’s friends didn't think to enter their student films in the Cannes Film Festival. But Greenspan figured he had nothing to lose. “It was only the postage,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “so I said, ‘What the hell.’” What the hell, indeed! In May, the 28-year-old USC graduate walked off with the festival’s top prize – the Palme d’Or – in the short film competition.
“It’s amazing that a student could win the short film award at perhaps the most prestigious international film festival,” says USC School of Cinema-Television professor Rick Jewell. School officials can't recall another USC student film winning in Cannes’ main competition, though Greenspan, who earned his MFA degree in 2001, isn't the first student filmmaker ever to do so. In 1990, an NYU student took the Palme d’Or for a short that went on to win an Oscar.
The rarity of such upsets may help explain why Greenspan’s classmates didn't even bother entering. Most tried instead for the Cannes Festival’s student section (Greenspan entered that too, but Bean Cake didn't make the cut. He also tried for the Sundance Film Festival, but the film was rejected. It did get accepted in the smaller, quirkier Slamdance Festival, in Park City, Utah.)

Set in 1930s-era Tokyo, the Japanese-language film begins with 9-year-old Taro gobbling up his mother’s freshly baked red bean cakes. Later at school, the teacher asks: “What do you love more than anything in the world?” Taro replies emphatically: “Bean cake!” It's the wrong answer, and the teacher threatens dire consequences if the boy doesn't learn to hold the emperor in higher esteem than his favorite dish. Taro’s steadfast allegiance to bean cakes wins the admiration of a pretty girl named O-Yoshi.

From Bean Cake, David Greenspan’s student film that took top honors at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.
The film is loosely based on a short story by Lafcadio Hearn, an American-born critic and journalist who settled in Japan in 1890 and subsequently married into a samurai family. Greenspan discovered Hearn’s writings during his junior year studying abroad in Kyoto. The original “Bean Cake” is a dark tale of star-crossed lovers that ends in a double suicide. Greenspan’s film takes a single episode from this story and moves the action forward to pre-war Japan, when the nation was steeped in militarism and Emperor Hirohito was worshiped as a god. At the same time, Bean Cake pays homage to the golden age of Japanese cinema and the exquisite cinematography of Yasujiro Ozu. On a $12,000 budget, Greenspan couldn't very well afford to film in Japan, but he was adamant about filming in Japanese. He shot his 12-minute, black-and-white film in Pasadena and downtown Los Angeles. To cast the two young leads, he searched nearly every Japanese-language school in L.A. County. Ironically, the youngster who plays Taro abhors bean cakes. “It's just careful editing and acting that makes it look like he's enjoying it,” Greenspan says.

– Diane Krieger

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