February 26, 2009
Hirokazu Kore'eda Maboroshi (1995) is less a movie than a prose poem rendered on film. Perhaps four lines of plot and not many more lines of dialogue knit together by almost two hours of stunning cinematography.
In After Life (1998), Kore'eda adopts both a similar and a diametrical approach. He gives himself five lines of plot this time around. And rather than creating the poetic image on the film itself, he weaves it together through dialogue and monologue.
The premise of After Life is that in the first week after you die, you are asked to select the one memory from your (mortal) life which you will retain when you journey onto the next (no other religious POV is pushed in the film). The "veil of forgetfulness" in reverse.
Helping out with this task is a group of "social workers," if you will, who will also attempt to reproduce the memory you select, which you will then briefly get to relive before moving on.
The movie takes place in a run-down government office building staffed by people who look like they belong there. No technicolor special effects. A Hollywood effort like What Dreams May Come tastes like cotton candy in comparison. They are in the world but not of it.
The bulk of the dialogue is constructed as interviews. And many of the interviews are just that. Kore'eda shot much of the material unscripted, and only a handful of the actors have credited parts.
The way the social workers recreate each of the memories their subjects select intriguingly captures the metaphor Kore'eda is striving for. Rather than reproducing the "reality" of the moment as it "really" happened, each memory is dramatized like a scene out of a play.
If the "reality" of a memory doesn't make it precious, what does? What are we remembering when we remember? Do memories only exist in their retelling? In a memory's recollection, are we in fact restaging it, complete with makeshift props and backdrops?
The movie concludes with the relationship between two of the social workers resolving itself in a memory recreated for one of their subjects. Watching it, you can't help but imagine what choice of memory you would make, or whether you would, as some do, choose to not choose at all.