Directed and written by Hirokazu Kore-eda
With Arata, Oda Erika, Terajima Susumu, Naito Takashi and Tani Kei
Distributed by Artistic License Films
When I hear the words "film" and "spirituality" in the same sentence, Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and Dreyer's PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and ORDET invariably come to mind: dour works whose whose transcendental inclinations are grounded in the harsh reality of physical anguish and frailty. Others may think of 50s Biblical spectaculars or New Age bilge about the therapeutic power of angels and ghosts. Compared to all these other films, the quasi-documentary style of AFTER LIFE is unique, as its spiritual vision. In its universe, angels are a bunch of ordinary office workers, the Big Guy upstairs is nowhere to be seen, and guilt and redemption exist only in the eye of the beholder.
AFTER LIFE takes place in a dormitory - the press kit describes it as a "way station between heaven and Earth" - full of recently deceased souls being guided towards making an infinite loop of their life's greatest epiphany to accompany them to heaven. Its first third consists mostly of cinema vérité-style interviews, shot in 16mm and spliced together with jump cuts, of the dead discussing their happiest memories. Although these interviews combine footage of actors working from a script and improvising with non-professionals talking about their own lives, the slight awkwardness and downcast posture of all the performers rings true. Naturally, most of the dead are elderly men and women, but their ranks include a teenage girl, who's enamored with her memory of a trip to Disneyland, and a 21-year-old punk. The dead have a week to choose their favorite memory, with the staff offering them videotapes of their lives - one tape per year - to help with this process. We eventually find out that the way station is staffed by people who couldn't choose a memory, and the melancholy Mochizuki (Arata), a WWII vet killed at the age of 22, emerges as a central character.
For a recovering Catholic like myself, Kore-eda's vision of heaven is most remarkable for disavowing the concept of sin. Albert Brooks' DEFENDING YOUR LIFE may be a relatively secular version of the afterlife, but its the absence of a visible God doesn't cancel out punishment for the sin of cowardice. Kore-eda himself remarks that "When I watched DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, my first impulse was 'Oh, this is so American.' " (Indeed, I find it hard to imagine an American or European filmmaker dreaming up a bureaucracy as benevolent and efficient as the way station, which even has a corporate logo. ) Of course, the characters in AFTER LIFE don't have much moral ambiguity to clear up. There are no miscreants here to relive rapes, crime sprees or their first taste of heroin.
AFTER LIFE makes no overt references to Chris Marker's SANS SOLEIL, but it often reminded me of Marker's lyrical musings about the interplay between film and memory. In fact, its concept of heaven would have been meaningless before the development of film and (especially) video technology. (Before the twentieth century, perhaps the dead would have captured their memories in a painting.) In SANS SOLEIL, Marker wonders how people who don't make films can remember their lives. Kore-eda takes this puzzlement literally; before the way station's patrons can progress on to heaven, its staff must first shoot a film of their memories. Although Kore-eda's first feature, MABOROSI, depicted the prolonged mourning of a woman whose husband committed suicide, the seed of AFTER LIFE may lie in his 1996 documentary WITHOUT MEMORY, a portrait of a man suffering from such severe brain damage (after an accident in 1992 caused by hospital negligence) that his short-term memory has been completely wiped out. One wonders if home video might make his life easier by making up for the lapses in his memory.
The leisurely pace and relatively solemn tone of AFTER LIFE certainly won't be for everyone; judging from the guffaws of the guy sitting behind me, some people will even find it ridiculous. As anyone who's seen MABOROSI might expect, its dramatic climax takes place in long shot and near darkness. But this austerity works to create a seductive (and surprisingly serene) mood. In an interview with Tony Rayns in SIGHT & SOUND, Kore-eda states that "it's obvious that Thanatos has been dominant in my work so far. Now I think I'd like to deal with people who stubbornly cling to life, and so I intend to change direction." Despite its seemingly morbid premise, AFTER LIFE is a step forward in that direction. André Bazin might have appreciated its utopain view of film as a preservative of history and emotion.