Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tribute to Donald Richie: After Life

Eventual all film critics will go to the great screening room in the sky. According to Hirokazu Kore-eda, there really will be screenings for those who have shuffled off their mortal coils. Whether or not it takes place among fluffy clouds hardly matters. It is really about the process of taking stock of the lives the recently deceased led and choosing the best part to hold onto for the rest of whatever.  Fittingly, Kore-eda’s modern classic After Life (trailer here) screens on the one year anniversary of Donald Richie’s death, as part of the Japan Society’s tribute to the highly influential film scholar, who indeed championed Kore-eda at a crucial point of his career.

When you die during earthly winter, you will find it is still winter when you arrive at After Life’s processing center, which is a shame, because the cherry blossoms are lovely there during the spring. Regardless, recently departed souls will only spend one week there.  Counselors Takashi Mochizuki and Satoru Kawashima will help them chose the one memory they wish to retain and oversee its production on film. At the end of the week, everyone will gather for the screening of their group’s memories and then continue on their cosmic ways with their sole designated memory preserved.

At least that is how it is supposed to work. Some souls cannot or will not choose.  They are known as difficult cases.  Several are on the docket this week. However, Mochizuki and his trainee Shiori Satonaka cannot judge them too harshly.  They too were unable to chose, which is how they came to be employed at the celestial halfway house. Presumably their earthly lives were somewhat disappointing, but Kore-eda will only reveal so much—that is until a chance connection sneaks up on everyone.

The spiritual element of After Life might sound out of place in Kore-eda’s work, considering his reputation for gently mining the terrain of family dysfunction and drama, in the tradition of Ozu. Yet, his subsequent films, like Still Walking and I Wish are very much about observing those small but tellingly significant moments the souls in After Life struggle to remember. In a sense, it is like a summation film that came early in his career.

Of course, there are no floating clouds in After Life (well, actually there are, but they are merely special effects for one of the memory films. Kore-eda deliberately keeps everything low-fi and low key to emphasize the basic humanity of the characters and the memories that mattered to them. For added realism, many of the sessions involve real people relating their own memories.  They are often quite moving, especially those of an elderly lady, who still fondly remembers dancing for her doting brother as young girl. Yet, perhaps the most powerful element of the film is the sad and touching way the pseudo-romantic relationship between Mochizuki and Satonaka never comes together.

In his first big screen role, Arata (Iura) is quite impressive slowly establishing Mochizuki’s angst and regrets. It is a role that gets progressively trickier with each reveal. Likewise, Erika Oda is extraordinarily moving as Satonaka. The way their performances evolve and deepen is also a tribute to Kore-eda’s firm but nearly invisible directorial hand. Indeed, he shows a knack for dispensing necessary information in a way that is unobtrusively organic.

There is no cheap melodrama in After Life.  Kore-eda does not set out to play on viewers’ emotions. Yet, by treating his characters’ afterlives with such respect and gravity, he lowers a mighty boom in third act.  Highly recommended, Kore-eda’s After Life perfectly concludes the first part of the Japan Society’s tribute to Donald Richie when it screens this Wednesday (2/19) in New York.