Monday, October 19, 2009


After Life(1998) Directed By Kore-eda Hirokazu
What is the happiest moment of your life? If you had to pick one moment, one memory to keep with you and the rest were going to be erased what would it be? This is the central question of Afterlife a film about life, memory, happiness, movie making, and only in tangent, death. A group of dead people arrive at a dilapidated building where they are told to select a single memory that they will dwell in for all eternity. Heaven as it turns out is only a memory. The film is mostly these people talking directly into the camera documentary style reflecting on what was most important to them. I recently told a friend about this movie, who told me it sounded “corny”, and if the film had only been about these people I, might agree. I told my friend that I liked the film because while watching it I reflected on my entire life, and what happiness had meant to me during it. I was almost shocked and a little saddened by how quickly I came to realize what my moment was, like the movie as a whole it leaves a bittersweet taste. My friend told me they didn’t think about their life that way, and that it would be too depressing to do so. I told her that someone in the movie says that too, and what made the movie as a whole so good and not just a clever concept was how honest it was about the complications between notions of a meaningful life, nostalgia, and personal happiness. The dead have a half a week to choose which memory they want and the rest of the week is spent filming the memories in a sound studio. The screening at the end of the week is to be their moment of “ascension”. Though silent at first the “counselors” shooting these memory-movies are not separate from the process, they too are dead. Takashi and his trainee Shiori we see handle most of the cases. It becomes clear that Shiori is infatuated with Takashi, but in a bureaucratic purgatory with dozens of films to make what time is there for love? And what would love possibly entail in such a place. Takashi is only concerned with his duties as counselor and helping people to clearly define their eternity.Everyone is ostensibly dead, but otherwise they are completely normal; eating, bathing, shaving, feeling warm, cold, anxious, and uncertain. Afterlife despite its title is not a film about death, but about memory and self-reflection. Two characters become problematic early on, one an old man who says he cant remember his life clearly enough to choose a specific moment, and the other a young man who refuses to chose a moment, insisting it would be “avoiding responsibility for his life” and a surrender to empty nostalgia. Takashi becomes interested in the old man’s case (for personal reasons we discover later), and has the man’s life sent to him on videotape so that he may observe and report, in a quieter variation on Albert Brook’s “Defending Your Life” (a conceptual cousin to Afterlife). I’ve never really been interested in seeing the greatest films ever made. I like to tell myself that one day I will get around to seeing all of the classics, but at the moment what makes me love cinema are viewing moments that do not just impress me for technical reasons, but that connect to me personally. Sometimes these connections are tangible and explainable with experiences that mirror my own, but with others they are intangible where I glimpse things I could never fully express but feel deeply as if I’ve known them forever. I think this is why many people watch films, at times to identify and at others to connect with what is unidentifiable.Afterlife is about producing films that capture only a single moment and that only have meaning to single person; films that will only be screened once, but will be remembered literally forever. They are so personal as to be inconsequential to anyone but their intended viewer, but I couldn’t think of a more meaningful type of film to make both for an audience and their creators. Russian silent film director Aleksandr Medvedkin used to travel the USSR on a train stopping at random villages and asking the people what their problems, issues, and concerns were and then asked for their assistance in making a film about just that. Doing this Medvedkin wanted to give cinema to the masses. The world of Afterlife likewise gives cinema to the individual.Visually I’ve heard the film compared to Yasijiru Ozu, and since most of the film consists of static shots, I can understand the comparison, but I haven’t seen enough of his work to comment one way or the other. I can say it is simple, sparse, documentary like, and non-obtrusive. Its style is intimate, serene, and quiet, in opposition to the romantic comic zaniness of Brook’s “Defending Your Life”; which I also enjoyed, for vastly different reasons. It would have been understandable if this film was absorbed by the fantasy it springs from, but it remains so rooted in the interactions of its characters and the nuanced performances of its actors, that it feels effortlessly natural.
There are sprinklings of melodrama in the film towards the end, but they allow the characters to actually reach important conclusions that the film wouldn’t have been able to connect together otherwise. Even if you can’t remember your own moment, isn’t it possible that you are an extra or a main character in someone else’s? I dont mean anything as dramatic as some old flame pining over you, but maybe a moment spent with a friend or a family member. Maybe your parent’s happiest moment was when you were born. It’s only from an imaginary position like an Afterlife that we have the distance to reflect on such grand feelings intimately and sincerely.
Since were not dead, this question can be written off as sophomoric or corny, our best days may in fact still be ahead. But I wonder if without some prior sense of what is truly beautiful, meaningful, and warm fuzziness incarnate whether we can know true bliss when we finally see it. This is assuming it’s something you can even know when you see it, and not something that only occurs with memory. I was once told in a Sunday Sermon, happiness is predicated on happenings and events, but joy was something internal that had little relation to the outside world. Personally I think real happiness is created when memories generate joy that later events cannot soil or touch.
In one scene Shiori speaks to a young girl who chose Disneyland and a ride on Splash Mountain as her moment, and tells her she is the 40th person to pick that same episode. Later the young girl reconsiders and chooses a moment with her mother doing laundry; a less exciting event, and not one that would come to mind quickly, but one closer to heart. Ultimately Afterlife is a beatific trip down memory lane that asks us questions that most people spend their lives asking themselves; am I happy, am I satisfied, and what are perfection, peace, and bliss? It handles these questions with minimal pretenses, conversationally and without judgment and reminds me of why I watch movies, and why I like sharing the things I love with others. At the end I just wanted to give this film a big hug. I can’t think of any flaws in this or anything I wanted to see but didn’t. Nor anything I felt was out of place, distracting, or insincere. The only objections I could reasonably see are often spoken by the characters themselves, particularly the young man, who thinks the entire system is flawed; what do they do if a baby dies for instance? My own moment (and no I will not tell you nor anyone else) was actually quite “corny”, in fact it was the first time in my life I realized why a certain kind of sentimentality existed. This movie is sentimental for sure, but it’s definitely sincere. If we get lucky in this universe and there is an Afterlife, we would all be very fortunate to find ourselves in movie theaters like these with kind hearted counselors to help us grieve for and accept our lives, and if there isn’t well at least there’s still movies like Afterlife; things worth seeing, things worth talking about, and things worth sharing with each other.


Karl Leschinsky said...

That Aleksandr Medvedkin story is incredible.

Anyway, this is some beautiful review Joe. Your loving review of it is as moving the film! I hear every word and the depth of your review reminds me how much is happening in this movie. I hope to revisit it someday *soon*... But it may only be 'someday'.

Thanks for not revealing your moment. That was actually much more interesting.

I understand some of the complaints against the film... (It's true also, as you say, that many of the characters file the same complaints.)
This movie still isn't how I would interpret purgatory. However, it's undoubtedly the most original vision of it I've seen yet. Perhaps the brightest one also?

Joe Sylvers said...

Thanks Karl, I think this is one of the best peices I've written. And no I wouldnt reveal that moment for all the movies in the world. I also wouldnt have watched it as soon as I did had you not included it in your own inagural post.