D: Hirokazu Kore-eda; with Arata, Taketoshi Naito, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naito, Hisako Hara, Kyoko Kagawa. (Not Rated, 118 min.)
They file in one by one, emerging from a hazy white light into the waiting area of what appears to be some drab, pre-computer-age social service agency. Most, but not all, of them are old; they speak Japanese and their expressions are curiously indeterminate. Their processing begins as each is assigned a caseworker, who appear to be overburdened petty functionaries with too many files to close and too little time. Gradually, as we observe the caseworkers' one-on-one interviews with their clients, we come to understand the situation: They are workers in some kind of metaphysical way station where they assist the new arrivals -- the recently deceased -- to select one memory to accompany them into eternity. The dead will be in this way station for one week. Following three days of interviews with their caseworkers, the dead must select a memory which will then be made into a short film by the caseworkers and given to the dead to keep as their only memory for all eternity. Of course, the movie's lingering question is: What memory would you choose if forced to decide? Long after the movie is over, the question continues to vex its viewers. Told in a very matter-of-fact manner, After Life explores a range of experiences. People of different class backgrounds and ages have come to this place to look back and reflect. Should the memory be one of happiness or poignancy, love or bliss, thrill or contentment? A child wants them to re-create a Disneyland ride, an old woman remembers the cherry blossoms, one old man says nothing memorable happened in his life and is then provided with the videotapes of his life for review. Contemplative, though riddled with humor, After Life reveals itself gradually. Not only do we learn about the lives of the people passing through, but we also learn how the employees of this agency fell into this line of work. We witness the efforts of these busy caseworkers as they mount a couple dozen film productions every week -- finding all the props, sets, costumes, etc. necessary to make each memory come to life. Who are we without our memories, and what are movies but a collection of memories? Japanese director Kore-eda came to international attention in 1995 with his mesmerizing film Mabarosi, a story ostensibly about a woman trying to come to terms with her husband's suicide. In much the same fashion as his earlier film, After Life probes life's intangibles and ephemera with great concision and insight. He treats these mysteries with a respect that never strays into easy sappiness or irony. Yet the multitude of life's experiences have never looked as various and nuanced, self-gratifying and important as they do after seeing this film. Viewing it really is an other-worldly experience.
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