Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Most great films challenge us on some level to explore the meaning of life. Usually it's up to critics, scholars and highly caffeinated college students to deconstruct the deep subtext laid oh-so-cleverly between the lines.
So when a film sets out with the meaning of life as its very premise, the natural inclination is to shudder. What conceit could possibly be more conceited? How could you NOT expect a train wreck of didactic indulgence?
All of which makes "After Life," from Japanese writer/director Kore-eda Hirokazu, a genuine wonder. Kore-eda has likened his allegorical story of life after death to Ernst Lubitsch's "Heaven Can Wait." Actually it owes more to Albert Brooks' "Defending Your Life": both envision a pragmatic limbo administered by a very human bureaucracy. Both filmmakers obviously enjoyed saying: you were expecting anything else?
Once through the requisite fog, the newly deceased in Hirokazu's world find themselves residents of a rather dreary, not-at-all-magical old brick office park. The afertlife apparently DOES spare expenses. Each is assigned a case worker to help them with a singular task: choose one defining memory from their lives to take with them into eternity. Why just one memory? No one bothers to ask and no answer is provided. The only thing clear is that they have just a few days to make an eternally binding decision.
The film gives its rich ensemble of characters time to collect their memories. The elderly Japanese tend to remember the unifying power of war, disaster and deprivation. Teenage girls, it seems, gravitate to vacations at Disneyland. Others struggle with the distinctly uneventful and unfulfilled quality of their lost lives. The caseworkers are studiously nonjudgmental, but they struggle, too. Most have been around the after life block long enough to know that memories can be convenient illusions. They must use whatever earthly means, including low-budget film stage recreations, to assure that each memory rings true. And in the process, it becomes the story of the caseworkers, too -- slightly damaged people who still have their own post-life choices to make.
What could be a minefield of feigned insight and forced sentimentality is a film of gentle humor, simple irony and honest emotion. And of course there is no missing the point. It is impossible to view "After Life" and not put ourselves in the character's position. We get to consider not only the memories we might choose, but the ones we still have time to create.
In Japanese with English subtitles, "After Life" is a beautiful little film that speaks to anyone willing to listen.
© 1999 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 7/99
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