Wandafuru raifu (1998)
Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Released as 'After Life' in the US, and 'Afterlife' in the UK.

I'd seen a review of 'Afterlife' in the Sunday paper and it wasn't so much the words that caught my eye, but the pictures. A simple grid of four stills--so still they seemed out of place in newsprint. So simple, they held too much promise. they held something of the ghost-magic of Francesca Woodman's photographs, and i found myself struggling to turn the page away from them. Film reviews, I find, are almost guaranteed to give the wrong impression. but this was something halting, almost tentative, in its praise. so far from hype, but so full of warmth. A reference to "It's a Wonderful Life", a nod to other Japanese films, a whisper about beauty. An art film, at the ICA, gaining a good write-up so the reviewer could feel smug about appreciating the avant-garde.

So, of course, we went to see it, meeting in the cafe where the serious eyeglasses were eating their sunday brunch.

And the film, quite simply, was beautiful. standing outside, afterwards, watching the cigarette smoke in the autumn air with fresh eyes, none of us could stop smiling. I felt like someone had given me the most amazing present, and i was going to be able to keep it, carefully, in a pocket, and carry it around with me, so that I could reach my fingers in to stroke it, and remind myself, whenever I needed to.

It's a fantasy film with no special effects. Nothing special but a perfect location (an old schoolhouse), wonderful characters (and so many of them, each adding a layer of question, or understanding) and a simple premise. when you die, you have to choose a single memory from your life to take with you. a memory that you get to relive for eternity.

When you die, you go to a halfway house, where there's a team of people who will help you choose, and then help to recreate that memory on film, so that it can trigger the reliving of it for you. You have one week.

And this film covers a single week--opening with the staff walking up the stairs to their briefing, talking about the cases from the week before, to the arrival of the newly dead, and the explanation of the task ahead of them, through the interviews, and decisions, and evenings, to the film making, and the final screenings, and to the point where the cycle begins again.

I wonder, now, how much of the script came from improvisation (the director asking the actors to reach into their own memories) because there's a naturalism that's startling. it's not the heavy handed fumbling dialogues flecked with struggling exclamations of 'fuck!' that plagues some improv work, but a gentle stepping, carefully thought out honesty that sings a clear true note. not all the actors, perhaps, but some: the old woman with the memory of dancing in a red dress (a small child performing for a worshipped old brother); the woman remembering playing in the bamboo grove, having a picnic in the thrilling calm after the earthquake; the old soldier, eating rice with his captors. and some of the others: did the director sit listening to old people wander through old memories, and listen to those lost in their childhoods?

this is a film that would be killed by Hollywood. Any remake would be ruined with misty-edged flashbacks, slow-motion embraces, and gambolling puppies in poppystrewn cornyfields. every frame would contain a genuine Kodak moment. and all the beauty would be lost. Because this was an emotional, even a sentimental film that was never mawkish. Even when i found my face wet with tears, I never felt manipulated. and it was never heavy handed.

It moved my heart, and not my stomach. And I have a very low tolerance for syrup.

For weeks i had freeze-frame memories of the film (images of a geranium in a bare school room, the logo on the staff's uniform, the sight of two men watching a film of the woman they both loved, an old lady collecting leaves, a noisy band sitting on snowy steps, a ragtag procession along a muddy path, an almost empty cinema.

And again and again the question: which single memory would I choose? could I choose? How could I pick just one, and lose all the others? How long is a captured moment?