SPECIAL FEATURE: DVD Review: Afterlife

Film: Afterlife
Running time: 118 mins
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Arata, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naitô, Kyôko Kagawa
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Country: Japan

This title has not been released in the UK.

Hirokazu Kore-Eda deals with themes of memory and death with a subtle realism that relies on the ability of his cast to provoke a hypnotic but highly emotional cinematic style. With Afterlife, he continues to explore these themes.

Afterlife works from the premise that when you die you are transported to what resembles a Government office building. Once there, you are given a week in which you have to choose your perfect memory. Once decided; the team assembled work tirelessly to re-create your memory on film, before screening it in a specially constructed cinema. The screening process then transports the viewer into that chosen memory for all eternity. Heaven is a film of your perfect moment looped forever.

The film charts one week in the various offices of the building. The recently deceased sit ponderously, charting their memories for their perfect moment. Some remember that perfect breeze, others trips to Disneyland, and some simply cannot/refuse to choose. But this week’s new arrivals start to provoke debate amongst the people that work there.

It transpires that the office building is staffed by people who could not decide on their perfect memories. It becomes clear that Shiori, the only female counsellor is in love with her fellow co-worker. However, when the object of her affections decides he has discovered his perfect memory, Shiori has to come to terms with the fact that death is not the end of heartbreak. That even the dead can lose someone…

Kore-Eda handles this supernatural premise with a realistic flair that means the fantastical nature of the story does not get in the way of the real human emotions of the film. The hand-held camera, natural lighting and semi-improvisational performances allow for the cast to create fully-rounded, likeable characters, which means that the odd flash of the supernatural, the misty entrance way, and the chiming of the funeral bells are all the more effective.

This is a film not interested in action, but on memory - on the nature of the mind. A large majority of the film is one camera staying in unflinching stillness, as the interviewees trace their memories back to their perfect moment. The camera becomes an instrument of confessional, the audience being spoken to directly. This is not a ponderous narcissistic art-project, but a film that deliberately tries to engage with its audience. The film ends with the same shot repeated on an empty chair; it is here that we are encouraged to think about our own memories, to take part in the discussion. This is a film which does not actively seek to alienate but rather encourages participation.

However, Afterlife will polarise its audience. It’s slow pace and lack of spectacle will seem intellectually stimulating to some and boring to others. But looking closer at the film reveals a rich use of symbolism, which not only discusses memory, death and love but also the very nature of film itself. One of the sub-texts of the film is Kenji who is a man completely unable to choose his perfect memory. To assist him, he is screened hours of videotape that seem to be a documentation of his entire life. What becomes apparent is that the staff at the facility could very easily just take the actual videotapes, the recordings of the actual event, and screen that. But they don’t. Instead they indulge in memory, how the event is remembered, not how it actually happened. Cinema becomes, as it has for decades, a way to idealise the past - an ethnographic study of the imagination, in which cultural, personal and political identity is constructed not from any degree of truth, but through imaginings, feelings and personal interpretation. The films pace may be slow but its interest in humanity stops it becoming ponderous. Its anchor is a study of memory and what that means to us. The suggestion here is that memory, like film, is illusionary, and yet beautiful.

Even the love story between the two consolers is allowed to slowly emerge from the sub-text, becoming part of the main narrative arc without a grand melodramatic show of emotion. The relationship is one of quiet un-requited love, and is all the more affecting because it refuses to indulge in the tears melodramatic cries that most Western audiences are used to. It emerges over time, and then disappears - leaving only hurt and empty space.

Without using morbid sensationalism, or the spectacularly grotesque that haunt so many other films about the afterlife, Kore-Eda has created a film that is a subtle and absorbing celebration of life. A celebration which shows cinema as a pathway between worlds and loss as a necessary, even beautiful part of life. AC

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