Monday, January 18, 2016

Foreign Review: After Life

"A-One, and a-two, and a-three..."

Movie: After Life
Directed by: Hirokaza Koreeda
Starring: Arata, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima

Simply structured and subtly sad, Japanese director Hirokaza Koreeda’s After Life is a rare, humanistic look at memory, meaning and what lies beyond in a fantastic setting, and although the film might be a drag to anyone used to a more thrilling setting, its quiet and contemplative treatment of a topic too often given to overwrought sentiment will be welcomed viewing for anyone looking for a slow-paced touch of wonderment.

In depth:
Why are we here?  What happens when we die?  Is there an afterlife?  These are, perhaps, the most intriguing, confounding, and terrifying questions any person can ask - and trust me, we’ve all asked them, or will ask them, at one point in life.  It’s no surprise, then, that these mortal concerns are a common topic for filmmakers the world over.  Unfortunately, if Hollywood’s track record is anything to go by, this important and meaningful subject more often than not gets bogged down by either maudlin sentimentality, gross simplifications, or the cheap adrenaline rush of your bog-standard horror flick.  But elsewhere on the planet, at least some studios give death and its subsequent the respect they deserve, and to that end few films in my recent memory stand out more than After Life.  A calm, thoughtful little import from the Land of the Rising Sun, this minimalist fantasy by relative unknown director Hirokaza Koreeda examines the afterlife from a unique perspective, and in the process delves past our layered conceptions of what lies beyond into the heart of what makes us human.

"...And that's how I got my finger outta there!"

We begin our adventure in what looks like a decrepit old government warehouse, blanketed by a sea of fog, listening to workers go through the usual grips of the daily grind.  These beleaguered bureaucrats appear to be conducting a series of interviews with a group of wanderers who look about as thrilled to be there as someone checking in at the DMV.  I've got to say that I love the way  Koreeda lulls us into a false sense of familiarity, hitting us with a subtle and soothing set up, all before slamming us into the ground with a one-line whammy:  “It is required the I inform you that you are dead.”  This nondescript building is, in fact, a sort of makeshift purgatory, where the recently departed are given three days to choose one single happy memory of their life.  The psychopomps of this bizarre waystation will then stage a reproduction of said memory, which the souls will relive for the rest of eternity.  That, in a nutshell, is the plot - or at least, its primary focus.  There is a “B arc” centered on two of the supernatural “counselors” advising the lost souls: Takashi (Arata), a sad and distant young man dealing with the drama of an assigned case connected to his past; and Shiori (Erika Oda), his fiery junior, who harbors the obligatory "not-so-secret" secret feelings for him.

You wouldn't expect much from such a simple setup at first, but make no mistake; from this meager story morsel sprouts an achingly beautiful tree, upon which hangs the full spectrum of human emotions filtered through the primacy and power of memory.  This is Koreeda’s vision, and he captures it in spectacularly simple, yet inventive ways.  One of the first things you might notice about the cast is that most of the people playing the dead patients are not professional actors.  Koreeda collected a repository of fond memories from real people and played them on screen, all for the sake of giving his film the stamp of believably.  This speaks not only to his focus and dedication as a filmmaker, but to the keen eye and ear he has for genuine storytelling.  Koreeda weaved these different accounts into a coherent narrative that infuses his story with realism and heart - a rare accomplishment in today’s cinema, and directors would be wise to follow his example when incorporating improv amateur dialogue into their movies.  

"This movie sucks"

The interviews lay at the beating pulse of this film, providing, in as subtle a way as possible, the meaning of life through the careful (and often painful) selection of what thoughts we value the most.  Whether it’s the hot-blooded man who speaks only of women and conquests, but eventually relents before thoughts of his daughter's wedding, the teenage girl who instantly chooses Disneyland before getting talked down to something more intimate, or the sad businessman who refuses to divulge any of his memories, the interviews provide a window into how we select from out lives the moments which matter.  While some of these scenes are scripted, most of them aren’t, and Koreeda’s patient eye and good timing ensure that we never dwell on one person or are left idle for too long.  Still, sometimes it seems like Koreeda takes a little too much time getting where he needs to go.  This is a problem particularly when it came to the memory reproduction towards the end; the film walks us through the changes, picture shots, and prop creation (guess God's on a tight budget, huh?) that end up taking a significant slice of screen time.  I understand why these scenes were there - they were Koreeda’s way of reminding us of the unreliability of even our most cherished memories - but I wonder if the message was a little too subtle.  It was the first time that I actually felt like I was watching a documentary - and I can't say that I enjoyed it.

Besides the occasional story drags, the film’s biggest weakness, ironically, is the main narrative string holding it together.  Despite the low-key and easy chemistry between Takashi and Shiori, their love story didn’t really strike a chord with me the way the rest of the movie had.  To be sure, its inclusion was necessary; otherwise, After Life  really might have ended up like one big dull (if heartwarming) docudrama.  Fortunately, this little distraction doesn’t impede on the plot much until its poignant end, with most of the arc given a dignified gravitas as background dressing to Takashi's case that sparked their relationship crisis.  So much, in fact, of what really makes this movie shine boils down to what’s implied, but never stated outright.  The very existence of such a range of souls - from elderly folks to young men and women in high school, and from the open and engaging to the sad and taciturn -  is pregnant with sad but unspoken implications: how did they die?  Why do some of them adamantly refuse to disclose anything about their lives?  We never get any clear-cut answers, which allows Koreeda to unfold their stories through snippets of memory, leaving much to the imagination.

Eternity awaits

The film’s gorgeous minimalism seeps into every pore, enhancing the hazy, dream-like atmosphere and mood.  Right at the beginning, in fact, before plot even kicks off, the first thing we as moviegoers will likely notice is the music - or rather, the complete absence of it.  There is no soundtrack, no background noise of any kind, just silence, as the wayward souls tell their stories and the caseworkers go about their business trying to bring their memories to life.  Silence is and always will be an effective movie making tool, but too often it goes neglected in today’s film philosophy.  The bulk of our otherworldly bureaucrats outside of our two leads are also minimalized, but Koreeda somehow steers them away from the hell of static one-dimensionality by having their impact on the story be sporadic but meaningful.  For instance, a background character will sometimes step forward and share something from his previous life with the recently departed, serving not only to increase the subtle pathos permeating the whole film, but also to build connections between the caseworkers and their charges - connections that matter very much in the film’s final act.

With so many mortality flicks out there that either boil down to jump scares or drown it in an ocean of sentimentality, After Life was a refreshing change of pace.  Its director has a brilliant eye for subtlety, mood, and the light sadness of the human condition.  At the same time, though, he has a pretty firm disregard for narrative momentum, which may turn away a few film buffs who’d prefer not to sit through what essentially amounts to an extended sequence of interviews.  Still, After Life is a strong film despite its weaknesses, and film goers hankering for a slow, thoughtful meditation on life will have one more pleasant memory to take with them to the other side.

Grade: B

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