After Life – Hirokazu Koreeda – To pass on through to eternity (whatever it may entail) the dead are gathered to remember a defining memory. All else will be forgotten, this one moment becoming the only possession with which to travel into eternity with. After a series of formal interviews and much deliberating (should it be the over-popular memory of Disneyland…or the more personal scent of a mother’s lap; a cool summer breeze, felt through an open bus window; turrets of passing cumulous, seen from the cockpit of a plane; a reunion with a lover; dancing in a red dress; something physical, a memory of sex, thrusting away with joyous abandon…or the maybe more nuanced, more vulnerable recollection of saying farewell to a daughter at her wedding) the person in question has to then re-enact their memory, to be filmed and then later – in a cinema screening – to watch the film, and in a sense ‘re-live’ the chosen memory.
The central premise of the film is at once beautifully simple and endlessly thoughtful, at times very literary in its gentle exploration of life, death and memory (hardly a modest side salad of ideas). Rather than visualizing a bombastic, CGI laden terrain of the metaphysical, Koreeda instead offers a run-down building with long empty corridors and peeling wall-paint. The banality of everyday is continued, with poignancy and humour in equal measures. Much of the first half of the film is taken up by static, face-on, framing of various accounts of memories. Through the straight-faced documentary nature of its editing, it becomes very easy to imagine these reflections not as scripted lines, but as genuine moments elaborated by real and believable people. This, like the prevailing banality of the setting, is occasionally hilarious and often very moving. In addition to approaching its central realisation of ‘after life’ with a charming sensitivity, the film also develops a surprisingly innovative plot (considering the already satisfying bumbling bureaucracy of the dead – a substantial film notion in itself) involving an old man who cant chose his memory – and is faced by his life reduced to a pile of videotapes…to be watched in the hope of conjuring a precious or important memory. While summoning various questions relating to what we remember, why we remember and how we remember, the film also brilliantly communicates the significance of film - as a medium to communicate, preserve and confuse our flickering past.
The idea of ‘re-enactment’ of memory, as a cinematic tool, is particularly potent in its suggestion of how easily we are appeased and enchanted by filmic recreation, regardless of its genuine fidelity. [Michele Pierson has explored ‘re-enactment’ in a dynamite essay, regarding more avant-garde cinema, ranging from Bill Morrison’s haunting Decasia to Guy Maddin’s feverish The Heart of the World.] These films become us, whether as memories or parallel realities. Or perhaps we are so seduced by the glamour of the image that such re-enactment is a more inviting alternative to the real. A tempting world with which to substitute our own, to vicariously inhabit, or perhaps it is that film does present reality. But, as surrealists were quick to recognize, it was a reality of dreams; the internal world animated in a dark auditorium. Memories, like dreams, become subject to drifting, playful and often unknowable currents…all bubbling oddities in the realm of the unconscious. Which is perhaps why it is so important that in After Life the external world…even though it is the external world of an imagined after-life, is so seemingly mundane – as it only in the cinema and through film, that each purgatorial adolescent or amnesiac octogenarian are released, leaving their seat empty when the lights come up. 8/10