Thanks to the genius of millions, who over the generations have created our language, we may speak of the most uncanny experience in terms that suit the most common. We call a place haunted to say that it feels the touch of the other world–and also to describe it as a hangout of the day-in, day-out kind.
Whether this overlay of meanings holds in Japanese, I do not know. But thanks to the genius of Hirokazu Kore-eda, I have just visited an unforgettably day-in, day-out place: an old high school or municipal building where coat hooks are fixed in the ocher walls, potted plants perch on the ledges of casement windows, gooseneck lamps sit on wooden desks and the residents are hard-working ghosts.
As brisk as a snow flurry, as straightforward as a photo-booth portrait, as sly and heartbreaking as memory, Kore-eda’s After Life is the story of a half-dozen ghosts who staff a kind of social service agency for the newly dead. We witness one full cycle of the weekly routine: receiving the caseload on Monday, officially informing the clients of their demise, helping them prepare for the beyond and then seeing them off on Saturday. We learn something about the lives of most of the week’s twenty-two cases, who range from a teenage girl with a plaid scarf and singsong voice to a perfectly round old woman with round eyeglasses who smiles perpetually but seldom speaks. In addition, we learn something about ourselves as viewers of these characters–because After Life is also a story about watching movies.
For each of the dead, the caseworkers diligently reproduce on film a single moment from his or her life. It will be the one memory to sustain that person throughout eternity; all else will vanish. So the haunted municipal building does double duty as a haunted movie studio. The main business during the first half of the week is to interview the cases and help them choose their moments; during the second half, to make a series of one-scene movies, each crafted for a singular audience, using production methods from roughly the same era as the building. The world to come has not yet converted to digital. Sets still require carpentry; sound effects are played on cassette recorders.
The setting and methods may be humble, but then so are the people. A 50ish man with a broad, chewed-up face wants to recall the breeze he felt as a boy, as he rode home on a steamy bus the day before summer vacation would begin. A tiny woman in her 70s, with short gray hair and a blue knit suit, chooses a memory of dancing for her older brother in a red dress he’d bought her. Though many of the week’s cases lived through earthquake and war, their lasting memories seem to have happened to one side of these great events. The dead hold on to a privileged moment with their parents, an unanticipated act of kindness from American soldiers, a change in the light.
One essential function of movies is surely to show us other people and satisfy our curiosity about them. In After Life, Kore-eda meets this requirement again and again, and in the most direct way possible, presenting these characters in a series of interviews shot head-on. The people seem to speak to us directly; and since they’ve been asked to address their favorite subject–themselves–they give us everything.
But, of course, we want more than they give. Movies don’t just tell us stories; they also provide plots. Kore-eda meets this requirement, too, but in a more oblique manner. He eases us into a delicate constellation of hopes, conflicts and disappointments, beginning with the interviews of two people who can’t, or won’t, choose their moments.
One of these hard cases is a 21-year-old with geometric clothes and electrified hair. This is Iseya (Yusuke Iseya), who figures “your whole setup needs rethinking.” Scrunching up in the chair with his boots on the seat, he proposes filming one of his dreams, which would be cool, or maybe realizing an event from the future. But select something from the past? That’s old.
The other hard case, who proves to be even more troublesome, is Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), age 71: a gravel-voiced gentleman with a professorial look–eyeglasses, goatee, turtleneck and sport coat–and an expression of pained befuddlement. After a lifetime of doing everything right–a college education, a proper marriage, an executive position with a steel-making company–Watanabe realizes he can’t think of a single memory he’d want to keep. The caseworkers, ever helpful, call in his videotapes. (It seems there’s a cassette for each year of our lives.) But when Watanabe reviews the tapes, he only feels worse. His life plays back like a travesty of an Ozu film: long takes of ordinary moments, which don’t fill with emotion but instead dribble it out pathetically as the seconds pass.
If Watanabe is to salvage anything, the caseworkers will have to help–which is where the plot takes hold. On Wednesday, Mochizuki (Arata) asks to be removed from the case. A fresh-faced man with a fashionable black suit and floppy hair, he has become uncharacteristically rattled by Watanabe. This uneasiness draws the attention of his partner Shiori (Erika Oda), who observes Mochizuki with sharp, sidelong glances. She’s the birdlike apprentice among the caseworkers: a very young woman who dresses for invisibility in a nondescript cardigan and bowl-cut hair. But as Mochizuki drifts away from her, into thoughts of his own, Shiori begins to resist, showing she’s of the same stubborn generation as the week’s other hard case.
Who would have thought the dead have such complicated relationships? It’s as surprising as the news that they drink Earl Grey tea and cheat at go. So many little things to give up before they can finish dying–not least those changes of light. And what if they refuse to give up? What if they insist on staying in a world of asymmetrical shots and hand-held camera movements, instead of yielding to the simple finality of a head-on view?
After Life is too full of what-ifs for me to give a complete list. But I can at least mention a few more questions that press forward. What if lived experience is like documentary video–just point and shoot–but memory has to be constructed, like a scene in the movies? What if a movie had one scene made just for you? What if our lives–good, bad or indifferent–all took their place in a collective creation: an infinitely long film, which would turn the humblest detail into magic? What if there were a place–not in this world, obviously–where films were made solely for love?
Going on my mundane round, I don’t expect to encounter magic, or to feel the rapture of falling into the screen. All I ask is that filmmakers show respect for the instruments in their hands, while proceeding as if my life, and yours, might be taken seriously. How often I’m disappointed. But then comes Kore-eda with After Life. It’s a film that treats the impostures of moviemaking as a high vocation, though a comic one–a fiction that wants to make room for everyone who sees it. I fell into After Life, and I intend to fall in again and again, at whichever movie house will show it. I’m haunted.
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Short Take: The credits for Windhorse are conspicuously gaptoothed, each hole representing the name of an actor or crew member who chose not to be mentioned. The reason for their reticence: Windhorse was shot in part in Tibet, with writer-director Paul Wagner and his associates posing as tourists.
Thanks to the invention of hand-held digital video cameras, cinematographer Steven Schecter was able to take high-quality location shots in Lhasa and elsewhere, without the Chinese authorities catching on. Wagner then transferred these scenes to 35 millimeter and intercut them with material filmed at other locations and on sets. The result is a feature made in semi-clandestine circumstances, in which the members of one troubled fictional family stand in for the Tibetan people.
The dramaturgy, I’m sorry to say, does not rise to the level of your better made-for-cable fare. In the role of degraded Tibetan womanhood we have Dolkar (Dadon), who is forced to wear fancy clothes and receive ovations as a singer at Lhasa’s nightclub. Already viewed as a collaborationist by her family because of her Chinese boyfriend, Dolkar comes close to selling her soul for a recording contract, singing camp-classic ballads in praise of Chairman Mao. Meanwhile, her brother Dorjee (Jampa Kelsang) expresses his resistance to Chinese occupation by sulking in doorways, shooting pool and swilling booze right from the bottle. Fortunately, redemption comes in the form of cousin Pema (name withheld), a nun, who raises her voice for a free Tibet in Lhasa’s marketplace and suffers the bloody consequences.
Whether you feel like putting up with such stuff depends largely on your passing mood. I call Windhorse to your attention because you might be in a giving vein, and because the mere existence of the film is remarkable. It’s like a kitsch figurine that had to be smuggled out of the bazaar–something you value not for its intrinsic worth but for the many pains of the people who brought it out.