..

AFTER LIFE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Arata, Oda Erika, Terajima Susumu, Naito Takashi, Tani Kei, Naito Taketoshi
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Audio: Japanese 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, non-anamorphic letterboxed widescreen
Studio: New Yorker Films
Features: Trailers, production notes, director profile
Length: 118 minutes
Release Date: August 29, 2000

"I'll be able to forget everything else?  Well, then that really is heaven."

Film ****

Filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the most promising directors from Japan today.  His first feature film, Maborosi, was a graceful though melancholy film about loss and acceptance, and it garnered numerous outstanding reviews and awards at international film festivals worldwide.  The success of that film eventually led to a special monetary grant, which Kore-eda subsequently used to fund his next feature film, After Life (1998).

After Life is a film with a simple premise - after you die, if you could only keep one memory with you for all of eternity, what would it be?  Would it be a moment of passion, a tender kiss, perhaps?  Or would it be painful memory, something by which to remember life's emotional texture?  Or, would it be the memory of an award, a discovery, an achievement to provide singular proof of one's former existence in the annals of human history?  Would it be a very private memory or a public one?

Such is the question posed to everyone who passes through the gates of the sanctuary that stands before heaven itself.  After Life, however, does not deal with angels on high or cherubs strumming their harps.  The after-life here is a startlingly mundane place, a sort of way station.  The departed souls arrive into what appears to be a nondescript office building with gray, unadorned walls.  The manner of their deaths is irrelevant; whether they were good or bad in their lives no longer matters, for here, no one is judged.  All they need do, over the course of the next three days, is to bear witness to the collective memories and thoughts of their lives before selecting just one memory.

To aid them, there are assistants in the building who explain the task before them.  Are these helpful beings angels or the souls of other departed humans?  Or, are they the celestial equivalence of social workers?  Whatever they are, these counselors exist to provide guidance, for the chosen memories that are presented will be used to recreate that memory for each individual.  It is this fresh remembrance and nothing else that the individual will carry forevermore into the hereafter.

The chosen moments of lives past vary greatly, reflecting a wide range of interests and personalities.  One man remembers fondly an exhilarating airplane flight; another chooses to recall a quiet, uneventful afternoon on a park bench with his wife.  One elderly woman remembers a red dress she danced in as a child, while a young girl reminisces about sitting quietly in her mother's lap.  What inspires someone to choose one memory and another person to choose another?  With only one memory to choose, how does a person decide what defined him or her most personally during life?  It is, in a sense, a variation on a timeless question - what is humanity, what is the meaning of life?

After Life unfolds over a period of one week.  The new souls arrive on Monday, and their memories are re-created on Thursday and Friday.  On Saturday, there is a small celebration culminating in a special screening of each memory, by the conclusion of which the souls fade away, embarking upon the next leg of their journey.  Sunday is, of course, a day of rest, and the entire process begins again on Monday.

Kore-eda, in making After Life, wanted to create a film that was partially fictionalized yet also partially factual.  Thus, the film uses a combination of actors working from scripts or actors and real people recounting their own personal experiences.  The mixture is a seamless blend of fiction and documentary (which was Kore-eda's specialty before he started making feature films).  Story and truth cannot be distinguished from one another, and the result is an often mesmerizing look at the values that individuals attach to their memories.

One of Kore-eda's inspirations for making After Life was his recollections of his grandfather, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease and whose own memory slowly faded over time.  As a child, Kore-eda could not understand the true effects of the condition, but later recalled, "I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died.  I now understand how critical memories are to our identity, a sense of self."

Other acclaimed films, such as Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire or Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, have touched upon similar themes.  After Life, like those films, is a deliberately-paced film with passages of great lyricism as well as great poignancy.  Likewise, it also uses religion as a foundation from which to expound upon much more universal themes in spirituality and humanity.  After Life may not offer much in the way of thrills and action, but its effects are more far-reaching.  Kore-eda's second film may well cause viewers to truly reflect upon their own lives, and that is something that can rarely be said of any film.

Video **

Technically, After Life is shown in a non-anamorphic letterbox format.  However, the aspect ratio approximates a 1.33:1 ratio anyway, so it is essentially like a full-frame format.  In addition to the regular 35mm footage, After Life employs a blend of 8mm and 16mm stock and black & white photography, particularly in scenes involving memories.  As such, the overall film has a somewhat grainy quality that varies accordingly.  Subtitles are burnt into the print itself and cannot be removed; fortunately, they are large and yellow and very easily legible.  The print is not in pristine condition, though, and has occasional dust marks and debris, unusual considering that the film is relatively quite new.  The general color scheme is a muted blue and grey one, rendering some of the darker scenes a little difficult to see due to diminished contrast levels.  Overall, the transfer quality is merely average.

Audio **

After Life is presented in its original Japanese 2.0 with English subtitles.  There is nothing flashy about this audio track for what is essentially a dialogue-driven film.

Features *

I like the scene selection menu, which divides the film into days of the week.

The actual extra features are somewhat sparse.  There are two trailers for After Life.  One is the English trailer, and the other is the Japanese trailer, which is entirely different in content and tone.  Production notes are available about the film and briefly discuss how the concept behind the film influenced the manner in which it was photographed.  A section on Kore-eda Hirokazu provides biographical information and a filmography for the director; it also includes a personal statement from Kore-eda about his inspiration for After Life.

Lastly, if you click on the New Yorker Films logo, you will enter a secret section that contains several pages describing the company itself and its commitment to bringing independent films to America.  You can also find a trailer for Maborosi here, too.

Summary:

After Life offers a profoundly touching exploration of identity and existence.  It is a unique film which will linger in thought and mind long after it has concluded.  After all, what memory would you choose?  Highly recommended.