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Between Two Worlds

Touched by an angel: seraphim spotting is said to have surpassed UFO sightings, not to mention Elvis alerts, in the annals of American supernaturalism, but After Life—the new film by Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu—is predicated on an otherworldly conceit so off-putting in its whimsy that it might daunt Steven Spielberg. To even describe it risks alienating those viewers who would most appreciate this surprisingly resonant movie.

Briefly put, Kore-eda's second feature concerns a week in the lives of several celestial caseworkers whose collective task it is to re-create the memories of the newly dead. In the After Life cosmology, the deceased are required to select their most precious memory, which, with the help of the caseworkers, shall then become the single recollection of earthly existence that will stay with them through eternity.

Imagining the divine plan as a celestial bureaucracy, After Lifebelongs to the World War II "film blanc" tradition that includes both inspirationals (A Guy Named Joe) and comedies (The Horn Blows at Midnight) and was revived a decade ago in movies like Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, Albert Brooks's Defending Your Life, and Spielberg's Always. (To put you in the mood, Film Forum is also screening Chris Wedge's Oscar-winning animated short, Bunny, in which an elderly rabbit ascends from her lonely kitchen to a luminous paradise.) But where wartime Hollywood favored misty, art deco heavens, After Life is considerably more grounded. The dead are housed in a dormitory on what might be a slightly shabby college campus; the caseworkers are as overburdened and harried as their mortal counterparts.

After Life's premise may be sitcom-cute, but the movie is shot documentary-style with much handheld camera and direct address. The clients' fairly detailed memories of World War II, their childhood experiences, love lives, or, in one case, day in Disneyland are delivered across a desk straight into the camera. A veteran TV documentarian, Kore-eda began by videotaping interviews with a range of individuals, incorporating some of the material into the film. (Ten of the 22 subjects who are processed over the course of the week are played by nonactors.) The tone is always matter-of-fact—leaving it to the viewer to be saddened or not by the presence of a few relatively young clients.
Making the ephemeral real: Oda Erika and Arata in After Life
Artistic License/Film Forum
Making the ephemeral real: Oda Erika and Arata in After Life

Details

After Life
Written and directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu
An Artistic License release
At Film Forum
Through May 25

The Mummy
Written and directed by Stephen Sommers
A Universal release

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In the course of their interviews, the caseworkers struggle to get exact details. The mood is overwhelmingly practical. One modified punk wants to know if he can spend eternity with a dream; another problem client, older and more depressed, sits in a room reliving his entire boring life on the videotapes that have been produced over the years, unbeknownst to him, as a sort of monstrous camcorder total surveillance. As the deadline for choosing the memory approaches, the staff become filmmakers—scouting locations, doing research, holding story conferences, studying rushes. The scenes are eventually restaged in a studio complete with sets and archaic special effects.

Like Kore-eda's earlier, much acclaimed Maborosi (a film that paid tribute to the restrained style and hyper-precise mise-en-scène of Hou Hsiao-hsien), After Life is essentially concerned with the power and fragility of human recollection. Reenacting the memories of the dead is one more way of making the ephemeral real. But although equally oblique in making its points, After Life is far less studied—and even less precious—than the earlier film, which, released here briefly in 1996, was the story of a young woman unable to reconcile herself to her husband's inexplicable suicide.

Like Maborosi, After Life is unexpectedly very touching—a meditation on abandonment, solitude, the solace of memory. Are the underlying metaphysics Buddhist, Taoist, or Shinto? Suffice to say that the scenario, which ultimately turns on the relationships between the various caseworkers and their back stories, seems extremely Japanese in its discretion. (One can only imagine the hell of a Hollywood remake directed by Nora Ephron as a vehicle for Meg Ryan and John Travolta, or, if Miramaxed, for Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon.) But the After Life premise is not exactly a metaphor. The film's essential dialectic has less to do with life and death than it does with the relationship between documentary and fiction.

Although it would be unwise to subject Kore-eda's fantasy to logical analysis, some might well wonder just how this particular bureaucracy managed to re-create memories before the invention of motion picture technology—or, at least, the development of photography. That, of course, is a question implicitly posed by this sweetly self-reflexive film, and I've no doubt that Kore-eda wonders how as well.

"If the plastic arts were put under psychoanalysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation." So André Bazin provocatively began his famous essay "The Ontology of the Photographic Image." It was Bazin's thesis that the artistic impulse was rooted in a "mummy complex"—his playful name for the primitive desire to preserve life through its representation.

Applied to After Life, Bazin's theory imbues Kore-eda's vision with an additional poignance. But it won't do much to explicate The Mummy—an elaborately high-spirited, low-comic, action-horror vaudeville written and directed by Stephen Sommers. Crudely remaking the 1932 Universal original (and shamelessly pillaging the pharaoh's hoard that is Raiders of the Lost Ark), Sommers's Mummy substitutes slapdash, if expensive, digital effects (including a dazzlingly orange-hued desert) for the earlier film's clammy atmosphere, and goofy attitudinizing for the dark erotic frisson between Boris Karloff's resurrected corpse and the half-possessed Zita Johann, whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his ancient inamorata.

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