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 Life belongs 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.

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.

Doggedly literal-minded, The Mummy tunnels into its subject. The action takes place largely in tombs infested by flesh-eating beetles while, not too tightly wrapped, the eponymous monster appears mainly as a manic moldering corpse. Alternately clownish and bemused, Brendan Fraser rehearses his Dudley Do-Right campiness in the requisite role of the brash treasure hunter (it’s a footnote to the part he played as muse to James Whale in Gods and Monsters). As the season’s second ample and tousle-haired Brit gal of the Sahara, Rachel Weisz shares Fraser’s sense of humor—she’s introduced toppling the bookcases of an entire library. All characters are imagined as types, although the presence of several crude American cowboys can scarcely compensate for the sort of egregious Arab bashing that seems far harder to eradicate in Hollywood than the dread Mr. Mummy.

Like the newly dead of After Life, the Mummy is stuck with a single memory—albeit not a happy one. If the monster were placed under psychoanalysis (as he was by film theorist Bruce Kawin), he might be diagnosed as a symptom come to life—an ambulatory “repetition compulsion,” forever doomed to reenact the frustrated sacrilege and consummate the passion that got him mummified in the first place. Drop the romantic aspect and that analysis would equally well describe the mindless force behind Sommers’s larky remake.