Blu-ray Review: Criterion Contemplates Kore-eda's AFTER LIFE
Ideas about any sort of existence after death are plentiful in cultures around the world; while many religions have ideas about either a heaven or hell existence, or simply being some kind of memory, there are some more secular ideas of a kind of limbo or waystation, an idea that we're all going to be somehow judged, or have to reflect on our lives on Earth, before we can proceed to some sort of different plane of existence. Films such as Defending Your Life and shows like The Good Place have always been fascinating to me in this contemplation.
But no film has held my thoughts on this subject quite like Hirokazu Kore-eda's understated and quietly beautiful After Life. It is a film I have thought on often for the past two decades, and wondered what would be the single memory I would take from my life. It asks us not only to think of the good, but the bad, and the useful; what has our life meant for for ourselves and for others; and what is the meaning of contemplation and reflection itself, as our souls journey to another place and existence.
A waystation between life and death prepares for the incoming of a new crop of souls: 22 people whom the employees must guide to the next realm. These souls must choose a single memory to take with them as they 'move on'; what awaits them is unknown, but this will be the only memory that they will have from their earthly life. Mostly of the souls are elderly people, but some are young. Some can instantly find a happy memory to carry on; for some, their lives feel a bit ordinary, for others, a happy memory feels impossible to recall; and for one young man, he chooses not to choose.
Meanwhile, those who work at this waystation are themselves still reflecting on their lives, and still, perhaps, are souls evolving. They still feel the cold, still sleep at night and drink tea in the day; they still feel joy, and sadness, love and heartache. This is especially true for Arata (Takeshi Mochizuki), who has been one of the guidance councellors for over 50 years, and Shiori (Erika Oda), who is still in training. What would you do with this extra, possibly endless time (or at least, as long as you want to make it last), and how would that change your soul?
The setting is not one of gloss or glamour, nor does it feel like any particular religious manifestation; indeed, one of the strengths of Kore-eda's script is that the questions that do linger are ones the viewer is happy to contemplate afterwards: where do the bad people go? Do they just get to pick a memory as well? One man finds himself unable to choose a memory, because he thought his life was - neither goopd nor bad, but simply too ordinary - and that may be a deeper tragedy.
And for the waystation workers, most of them are young, or young enough, that they had not accumulated enough memories to choose one worth carrying for eternity. All this in a place still subject to the changing seasons, to the need for food and drink, to the want of love and friendship, in the end, to the small things and the people that make any kind of existence worthwhile.
The exact translation of the Japanese title of After Life is, more accurately, Wonderful Life; while not all the characters are presumsed ot have had or profess to have had a wonderful life, it is a melancholic and sweet look at how we remember our time on this earthly existence, how we decide what are the important moments, how we know what made us happy or sad, or how to find joy, as the most elderly of the characters does, in the simple moments.
After Life is a rare feature film in 16mm; well, at least rare for a contemporary film. Criterion always does a terrific job with their restorations, but they have really outdone themselves with this Blu-ray. It feels like you're watching the print for the first time; the scope is there, as is the roughness, the tangibility of the film strip, with its warmth and depth. Giving the story of the film, you do feel as if you are watching the character's memories being pieced together as they each search for their forever moment. The blue and greens and browns blend into the nature of the setting, and the analog-ness of the props (rotary phones, for example) are enhanced by the restoration of the 16mm format.
There are three interviews filmed especially for this release, each with the kind of behind-the-scenes footage and inside information that enhance viewing and understanding. Kore-eda himself discusses the first seed that was planted that would become the script (a grandfather with Alzheimer's), how he felt a kind of return to basics (emphasizing the analog) fit the mood of the story, and the interviews with hundreds of elderly people that would lend the film its slight documentary feel (and some of the interviews that made it into the film). Cinematographer Yutaka Yamakazi discussed how he encouraged Kore-eda to use his documentary background for the style of the film, with handheld shots and makign discoveries on-set and incorporating those discoveries into the tale. Masayuki Sukita, the second cinematographer, filmed the memory scenes, making him both crew and character; his history of rock music photography (he was one of David Bowie's favourites) made him uniquely places to evoke how film and photos captures our memories, bringing the needed richness to the final moments.
I'll admit that I'm biased towards the Criterion essays, but I don't know that one has made me teary-eyed before Viet Thanh Nguyen's beautiful piece. The author recounts the story from the inside, both his own view of the characters and their thought process, and its meaning for the film and its themes. This is what happens when you have (arguably) someone who isn't a film writer per se: a piece that approaches a film a bit differently, who engages with the material on a personal level.
But that's the beauty of After Life, and Criterion's wonderful edition: it's a film that doesn't leave a viewer untouched, that provokes a deep contemplation on the nature of our lives and our memories. It's a film that can't help but be personal, that is indeed that home movie so many of us of a certain age can remember, or try to.
- Hirokazu Koreeda
- Hirokazu Koreeda
- Arata Iura
- Erika Oda
- Susumu Terajima