You could spend eternity watching movies and not see one with the qualities of "After Life." That's how special, how original this intimate Japanese film is.
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (whose first feature, "Maborosi," was a success on the festival circuit), "After Life" is simple in structure but poignant almost beyond words in effect. A meditation on the randomness of pleasure, of memory, of life itself, "After Life's" story of a week spent at an unusual facility starts slowly and simply yet ends up as close to transcendent as cinema gets.
It begins on a Monday, the first day of the week, and employees are doing the usual grousing about their jobs as they report to an unprepossessing institutional building, a former school perhaps. They complain about the chill in the air as their supervisor advises them that this week's workload is heavier than usual.
Out of a blinding white fog, other people walk up a few stairs and sit expectantly in the building's waiting room, old and young chatting politely with one another. Then each person is called individually to a room, where the following information is imparted:
"As you know, you died yesterday. You will stay here for a week, and there is one thing you must do. You must select one memory, the one most meaningful and precious to you. We will re-create it for you on film, so you can relive it, and you will take only that memory with you into eternity."
There is something innately appealing about this concept, as there is about the simplicity and everydayness of a ramshackle halfway house between Earth and the next life. But again, the magic in "After Life" is in more than the simplicity of the concept, it's in the subtle and perceptive way it's executed.
Though he uses it to very different effect, writer-director Kore-eda shares with Belgium's Dardennes brothers ("La Promesse" and the Cannes prize-winning "Rosetta") a background in documentary work that is both considerable and essential. That experience adds grace to the straightforward interview shooting of the 22 people who must choose memories this particular week, all of whom face the camera in classic neo-documentary poses. In developing the script Kore-eda interviewed more than 500 subjects about the memory they would choose, and those on screen include actors working from a script, as well as actors and nonprofessionals recounting their own experiences.
Possibly because we're told that these are dead men and women talking, there is something intrinsically moving about the ways, ranging from wistful to matter-of-fact, that these people provide exquisite snapshots of what has mattered to them in their lives.
A 78-year-old woman, for instance, talks about a new dress bought for a childhood dance recital. A prostitute remembers a client who was kind; a potential suicide recalls what made him pull back from the brink; a pilot thinks about clouds; an old man remembers the breeze on his face when he rode a trolley to school; and a wild-haired 21-year-old wearing leather pants refuses point-blank to choose anything at all.
Some of "After Life's" most moving moments are its smallest. A man who claims all his memories are bad feelingly says, "You can forget? That really is heaven." A pretty, vivacious girl is going to put down a trip to Disneyland until convinced otherwise. And a tiny, bird-like woman (Hisako Hara) quietly scavenges treasures from nature and hardly talks at all.
"After Life" spends different amounts of time with different people, gradually concentrating most on retired steel executive Ichiro Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), a man whose ordinariness seems a barrier at first, and staff member Takashi Mochizuki (Arata) who's been assigned to help him.
As involving as the newly dead, it turns out, are the adventures of the staff, who though no longer living are not immune from the pleasures of tea, the excesses of fits of temper or the frustrations of having crushes on co-workers like the one young Shiori Satonaka (Erika Oda) has on Mochizuki. When he offers to lend her his mystery novel, she replies that she's currently reading something else: a multivolume world encyclopedia. "Time," she says artlessly, "I've got plenty of."
Once a memory is chosen, the staff also aids in filming it, using simple special effects that couldn't be further from state-of-the-art. The role of movies, even the most primitive, in molding, enhancing and even changing our memories is one of this film's recurring themes, and one of its most telling.
All this is accomplished with a level of delicacy and restraint that is rare and welcome. In its examination of what is fleeting and what remains, "After Life" is not only perceptive, it leavens everything it touches with a surprisingly sly sense of humor. Few films about death, or about life for that matter, leave you feeling so affirmative about existence.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: mature themes.
Arata: Takashi Mochizuki
Taketoshi Naito: Ichiro Watanabe
Erika Oda: Shiori Satonaka
Susumu Terajima: Satoru Kawashima
Takashi Naito: Takuro Sugie
Hisako Hara: Kiyo Nishimura
Released by Artistic License Films. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Producers Shiho Sato, Masayuki Akieda. Executive producers Yutaka Shigenobu, Masahiro Yasuda. Screenplay Hirokazu Kore-eda. Cinematographers Yutaka Yamazaki, Masayoshi Sukita. Editor Hirokazu Kore-eda. Music Yasuhiro Kasamatsu. Art directors Toshihiro Isomi, Hideo Gunji. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
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