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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Drama > Asian > After Life (Asian Comedy/Drama)

After Life


Picture: B     Sound: C     Extras: D     Film: B



Andre Bazin argues in the “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” that cinema, unlike any other art form, possesses the ability to cheat death, preserving the sounds and images of individuals long deceased.  This mummification process testifies for what was once real, alive; the film, although a constructed text, is tangible evidence of existence.  Films, therefore, function as a historical record, accessible to all in perpetuity, transgressing the temporal limits of human mortality.


Kore-eda Hirokazu’s 1998 film After Life engages Bazin’s musings, functioning as a meditation on the role of cinema as a historical text, a medium for recording human memory.  Ostensibly, After Life articulates a kind of purgatory.  Upon death, individuals are sent to state of limbo, set in a building that awakens images of a dilapidated mental hospital or prison (a kinder reading might invoke a likeness to a boarding school), where they are given a week to decide what memory they would like to relive for eternity.  Assisted by spiritual social workers, the recently dead undergo a psychotherapeutic journey recalling a suitable memory.  Arriving on Sunday, the newly deceased clients are given three days to settle on a memory, thereby giving the social workers turned film director, ample time to recreate the memory and capture it on film.  On Saturday, the films will be screened, and the affected audience member essentially disappears into the film, living an eternal return of the same.


After Life follows one week of the visitors that inhabit this particular ethereal way station.  Although each individual plays a role in the larger narrative, the most interesting characters are Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), an elderly gentleman void of a happy memory, and Iseya (Yusuke Iseya), a young twenty-one year old, who refuses to select a memory.  In Watanabe’s search for an appropriate memory, his case worker supplies him with videotapes that recorded each year of his life in hopes he would find a memory to his liking (clearly adding to an already rich deliberation on cinema and memory).  Iseya, however, ignores the pressures of selecting a memory, refusing to be defined as a single experience.  Ultimately, this affects their mutual caseworker, who eventually chooses a different path of existence.


Thematically, the film suggests that Heaven is an eternity of your fondest memory, yet this articulation of the afterlife is decidedly depressing.  Personally, it makes Sartre’s “No Exit” a much more appealing alternative; at least it has the possibility of difference and change.  Moreover, the chosen memory is not genuine, rather it is a constructed image preserved on film, positing questions of the artificiality of memory, film, and the human experience. Yet, Hirokazu captures this heavenly ambivalence well, passing no judgment on the characters or their interminable choice.  Hirokazu and his cinematographer, Yamazaki Yukata, both started in documentary films, which is apparent in After Life, and is especially noticeable during the interviews of the clients.    


The film indeed lumbers at times, clocking in at just under two hours, usually when reinforcing a point already made.  The film’s value increases exponentially when viewed with another; it invites an engaging discussion on nostalgia and memory suitable over a cup of coffee.  Although the film is primarily a character study underscored by philosophical inquiries, there exists some interesting plot developments that complicate, not necessarily the narrative, but the discussions that would follow a viewing.  For example, where did the caseworkers come from and why are they not reliving a memory?  The answer, oddly enough, has hints of the logic found in Beetlejuice. 


This New Yorker Video release is rather bare.  The director’s profile and production notes are mildly informative, highlighting a cursory history of the director and insight into the film that adds little to one’s initial reading.  The trailers are interesting insofar that one can get a feel how the film is being “sold.”  Presented in widescreen and stereo, the 1.66 X 1 picture and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound quality are not spectacular.  Although the picture is rather soft, it echoes thematically the spiritual world which it is set.  The yellow subtitles are a welcome addition, preventing the dialogue from being washed out, especially in a number of richly lit scenes.



-   Ron Von Burg


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