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Watching Ebert: After Life (Kore-eda, 1998)

This is the first in a series of reviews of films Roger Ebert has given four stars to between the years of 1967 and 2007, inspired by his book, Roger Ebert’s Four Star Reviews.

What happens when we die? This is not a question of religious beliefs—it’s more visceral. What would the afterlife feel like? Where do we go? What do we have with us? This question has been the basis of numerous films, but none that I’ve encountered have treated it with the originality of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life,” a film that requires no special effects, flashy CGI, or big speeches to be enormously affecting. You will be surprised by how much this humble-looking film will move you, and how long the ideas and images will linger in your head after the film is over.

We’re thrown headfirst into a grungy-looking institution, perhaps a rundown office building or school. We don’t know where we are—there are no familiar characters, no signs indicating why this building exists or where we are in relation to the rest of the world. Slowly, we come to realize that the people working at this institution are agents of the afterlife, here to guide the new arrivals through the final processes before they head off forever into the eternal resting place. That process? They are to remain at this institution for one week— at the beginning of the week, each person is to pick the single happiest memory from his or her life, and for the rest of the week, the workers help the person perfectly recreate that memory. At the end of the week, they experience the memory in the form of a movie screening, and once it is over, they move on with only that memory left with them for all eternity.

What lies after this place? Kore-eda is not concerned, and wisely avoids it, knowing that debate of religious or theological matters would only weigh the film down. Instead, he digs deep into the lives not only of the recently deceased, but the workers who guide them along. Who are these people? How did they get here? Did they have previous lives on Earth— if so, what were they like? How do they get along with the other workers? Are they stuck working at this job forever? This film answers all of these questions and more, and Kore-eda gives us an unending amount of information, not letting our curiosity go unsatisfied.

By using a visual style resembling that of a documentary, and a relaxed method of dialogue delivery, the film feels incredibly grounded in reality, even when dealing with more fanciful elements, like the studio where the memories are recreated, and the MacGuyver-like ingenuity these people use to help capture the subtlest degrees of these people’s memories. There’s no limit to the originality at work here—in Hollywood, we’d be dealing with countless stereotypes, but here, each individual is unique, which rings true. Consider the man who chooses a moment in his childhood, sitting on a schoolbus. Or the young man who refuses to choose a memory, just to see what will happen. The workers are affected by these stories in a variety of ways, and during the film at least a couple of the workers’ ideas about the work that they’re doing will change.

If you’re not intrigued by this fantastical concept, or the idea of having to read Japanese subtitles dissuades your interest, then I pity you. My upbringing and my studies in college pertained mostly to American cinema, so even up until an embarrassingly recent time, I felt that Asian cinema only provided anime, shock horror, or kung fu. This is an unfortunate but understandable outcome in a country that devalues subtitles to the point where only the most exploitable genres of foreign film make it out of Los Angeles and New York—if it doesn’t have Oscar hopes or box office potential, the majority of the country will have no chance to see these types of films. It’s a shame.

This is a haunting film, but not in the sense that it’s overly sad or heavy. It’s quite funny and charming, and I caught myself smiling throughout most of it, but it deals with emotional subject matter. For the days following my screening of the film, I found myself trying to decide on one memory to stay with me. The difficulty I faced made me appreciate the life I’ve had so far— and I think that Kore-eda meant for us to take that optimistic worldview away from the film, rather than linger on the fear of losing so many memories in the future. This is absolutely a 4-star classic.

***

Ebert says: “Kore-eda, with this film… has earned the right to be considered with Kurosawa, Bergman, and other great humanists of cinema. His films embrace the mystery of life, and encourage us to think about why we are here and what makes us truly happy.”

Read the rest here.

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~ by russellhainline on January 3, 2009.

6 Responses to “Watching Ebert: After Life (Kore-eda, 1998)”

  1. How is that Ebert book? How does it compare to his other books?
    I like this idea of reviewing these films.

    Most of Ebert’s reviews in the “Great Movies” section on his website are on point.

  2. Excellent review. I’m going to have to check this one out…keep up the good work!

  3. The Ebert movie book is terrific. All 900 pages of it.

    Coming up next in this series: Amadeus, American Movie, All the Real Girls, Adaptation, Almost Famous. 🙂

    Thanks for the kind words.

  4. Watched it for film class recently, it’s exactly as you write. Since you liked it how about trying Bin-Jip (Empty hopuses) if you haven’t seen it yet? It’s Korean.

  5. Hideho gave yer fine post a mention here: http://snaporaz.posterous.com/2010-03-04-new-kore-eda-opens-offscreen-festi – warmest!

  6. I just like the valuable info you provide for your articles.
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