Photo by Kevin Langdon AckermanSILHOUETTES EMERGE FROM THE SUNLIT FOG one Monday morning and enter a dilapidated, eerily official-looking building. "You have just died," they're told. This place they've entered is a way station between life and their eternal destination, and their task over the course of the coming week is to choose a single cherished memory from the whole of their own lifetime, which they will then re-create with the help of the institute's support staff. Whatever moment these wraiths choose will constitute their whole afterlife -- all other memories will be erased.
This haunting concept is the mainspring driving After Life, the new film from Hirokazu Kore-eda. Kore-eda is the Japanese filmmaker best known among critics for Maborosi (1995), an exquisite visual poem about a young mother struggling to survive the sudden death of her husband. There, in scenes that were often built from a single shot, Kore-eda demonstrated an eye and a rhythmic sense worthy of his favorite master, Robert Bresson. Here, in an imaginary hereafter populated by kindly bureaucrats amid cracked walls, he's closer to the realm of the documentary -- and yet this new film, for all its surprising humor and illusions of spontaneity, is as perfectly achieved as its predecessor.
Asked if he's familiar with French director Olivier Assayas -- whose films enjoy a similar energy and spirit of liberty -- Kore-eda bobs his head and replies through his translator, "I would love to be, but haven't had time. Everything I've heard about Assayas makes me curious to see his work, but the truth is, on After Life I was determined not to be influenced by anybody. On Maborosi, I was always very conscious of the example of Bresson, or Theo Angelopoulos, or Victor Erice. I wasn't trying to pay homage, but I held myself to a standard that originated outside me. With After Life, I set out to overthrow all influence. I never even mentioned other directors on the set. I tried to make a film that was simply the sum of my experiences, such as they are."
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After Life is by nature a parody of the movie business. For Kore-eda, who is 36 and began making documentaries out of college, the world of film has constituted the larger part of his adulthood, and he was eager to confront it. Once the newly dead select the memory where they will spend eternity, the officials at this halfway house have to re-create it -- building sets, organizing props, yelling for quiet at the moment of truth. "In Maborosi, it was a matter of reduction -- I was getting rid of everything that wasn't part of the film as I envisioned it beforehand. In After Life, it was a matter of letting the various actors, old folks and crew contribute as their inspiration guided them, after which I would make sense of the chaos by selecting the best of what they gave me. During the interview scenes, I instructed the actors to conduct actual interviews with the other players, and I would simply film them. The love story that develops between the male and female leads was likewise unplanned -- I gave them only the first half of the script when we started. I observed the chemistry between them, and built the ending from that."
One of the measures of the film's grip is that one emerges wondering what one's own memory of choice would be: The question becomes increasingly difficult the more you ponder it. When it's put to Kore-eda, he cheerfully shakes his head. "Everybody asks me this, of course." But he professes not to mind too much, because it's forced him to realize his answer is woven into the very essence of the film. "The memories I most enjoy are those very communal, creative moments that After Life was designed to celebrate. The process of making movies, the feeling of togetherness in a creative enterprise -- that is what I cherish most in life, and what I hope to take with me."
For a review of After Life, turn to the Film Pick in Calendar.