Review by Roger Ebert:
The people materialize from out of clear white light, as a belltolls. Where are they? An ordinary building is surrounded by greenery andan indistinct space. They are greeted by staff members who explain,courteously, that they have died, and are now at a way-station before thenext stage of their experience.
They will be here a week. Their assignment is to choose one memory,one only, from their lifetimes: One memory they want to save for eternity.
Then a film will be made to reenact that memory, and they will move along,taking only that memory with them, forgetting everything else. They willspend eternity within their happiest memory.
That is the premise of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life,” a filmthat reaches out gently to the audience and challenges us: What is thesingle moment in our own lives we treasure the most? One of the newarrivals says that he has only bad memories. The staff members urge him tothink more deeply. Surely spending eternity within a bad memory wouldbe–well, literally, hell. And spending forever within our best memorywould be, I suppose, as close as we should dare to come to heaven.
The film is completely matter-of-fact. No special effects, nocelestial choirs, no angelic flim-flam. The staff is hard-working; theyhave a lot of memories to process in a week, and a lot of production workto do on the individual films. There are pragmatic details to be workedout: Scripts have to be written, sets constructed, special effectsimprovised. This isn’t all metaphysical work; a member of an earlier group,we learn, choose Disney World, singling out the Splash Mountain ride.
Kore-eda, with this film and the 1997 masterpiece “Maborosi,” hasearned the right to be considered with Kurosawa, Bergman and other greathumanists of the cinema. His films embrace the mystery of life, andencourage us to think about why we are here, and what makes us truly happy.
At a time when so many movies feed on irony and cynicism, here is a man whohopes we will feel better and wiser when we leave his film.
The method of the film contributes to the impact. Some of thesepeople, and some of their memories, are real (we are not told which).
Kore-eda filmed hundreds of interviews with ordinary people in Japan. Thefaces on the screen are so alive, the characters seem to be recallingevents they really lived through, in world of simplicity and wonder.
Although there are a lot of characters in the movie, we have no troubletelling them apart because each is unique and irreplaceable.
The staff members offer a mystery of their own. Who are they, andwhy were they chosen to work here at the way-station, instead of moving onto the next stage like everybody else? The solution to that question iscontained in revelations I will not discuss, because they emerge sonaturally from the film.
One of the most emotional moments in “After Life” is when a youngstaff member discovers a connection between himself and an elderly newarrival. The new arrival is able to tell him something that changes hisentire perception of his life. This revelation, of a young love long ago,has the kind of deep bittersweet resonance as the ending of “The Dead,” theJames Joyce short story (and John Huston film) about a man who feels asudden burst of identification with his wife’s first lover, a young man nowlong dead.
“After Life” considers the kind of delicate material that could bedestroyed by schmaltz. It’s the kind of film that Hollywood likes to remakewith vulgar, paint-by-the-numbers sentimentality. It is like a transcendentversion of “Ghost,” evoking the same emotions, but deserving them. Knowingthat his premise is supernatural and fantastical, Kore-eda makes everythingelse in the film quietly pragmatic. The staff labors against deadlines. Thearrivals set to work on their memories. There will be a screening of thefilms on Saturday–and then Saturday, and everything else, will cease toexist. Except for the memories.
Which memory would I choose? I sit looking out the window, asimages play through my mind. There are so many moments to choose from. Justthinking about them makes me feel fortunate. I remember a line from IngmarBergman’s film “Cries and Whisper.” After the older sister dies painfullyof cancer, her diary is discovered. In it she remembers a day during herillness when she was feeling better. Her two sisters and her nurse join herin the garden, in the sunlight, and for a moment pain is forgotten, andthey are simply happy to be together. This woman who we have seen die aterrible death has written: “I feel a great gratitude to my life, whichgives me so much.”
Subtitles:English srt subs