Having seen director Hirokazu Koreeda’s Maborosi (1995) and Nobody Knows (2004), I know that his films focus on human memory. Usually a memory that has some special significance in the character’s lives. In Maborosi it was the memory of the female lead’s husband killing himself. She spends the entire film trying to figure out why he did it. In Nobody Knows, it’s the question of why the mother has abandoned her children in an apartment to fend for themselves. Did the husband show some sort of a sign he was going to commit suicide? Even though she came back before, did the mother look like she was leaving for good this time? Human memory is imperfect enough that these moments live forever in their minds. In After Life (1998), people who have died are asked to pick one memory. Once the memory has been chosen, it will be re-created for them by the staff. They will relive the memory and move on to eternity, ignorant of the rest of their life.
Most are old to middle-aged and with a little coaxing find a memory. However, there are those who have trouble. An older man cannot find a memory, but is convinced that if he had some memorabilia available he could think of something. The staff provide him with videotapes of his entire life and a room where he can view them. A young man clearly could think of something if he tried, but is determined to hold out. It doesn’t take long before our focus shifts from the sentimentality of the recently deceased’s memories, to the staff.
Who are these people? Are they dead? If they are dead, then why do they choose to live here rather then move on? They help people all the time to do it, why couldn’t they? This is where the heart of the film lies. These people are dead and they have deliberately chosen to remain. A batch of the recently deceased takes a week to process. We follow them for one week as they go about their jobs.
The film has a very film for filmmakers vibe to it. Sure it’s about human memory, but it’s about taking that thought and turning it into something permanent. Koreeda shoots the film in a documentary style, but has the characters build people’s memories from studio magic. In other words, an idealized version of the memory. The contrast of the two styles takes us back to the imperfection of memory. Memory can be a Hollywood musical or it can be bleak neo-realism. Neither is reality, just a re-creation of what you remember, done in a particular style.
The world of the film shapes to fit the characters view of it. For the staff, it is a camp where they build fantasy. For the clients, it is a way station where they find peace. It’s slowly paced with internalized drama that comes out in empty faces and similarly empty sets. Koreeda does a good job of giving it an ethereal quality without using special effects. The ending makes sense and you can see it coming. If you have seen any of Koreeda’s films and found them confusing than this film is for you. It is pretty straightforward about what it’s doing. That’s good when you want to get a grasp on a director that is otherwise tough to crack. Like moving towards the surrealist Fellini by starting with his neorealism. It’s worth a look.