When people die, they spend about a week in a place that is something like an immigration bureau. Here, with some guidance from counselors/film producers, the dead spend three days selecting one memory, which will be made into a film and serve as their only remembrance of their time on Earth.

I love it when a film poses a thought provoking question. After Life, by Hirokazu Kore-eda asks, “if you could keep one memory as your only connection to the mortal world, what would it be?”

Right away, a jerky, hand held shot following two of the workers at the bureau lets us know that this is not a divine place. We learn later that those who work there don’t know much about what comes next and are only dead mortals themselves. There is not much mysticism about this facility, which is never named. The films must be made using conventional means, the accommodations are only adequate, there is a power outage, and someone even has to clean the floors. There is no apparent god or judgment (wohoo!).

The workers are people who could or would not chose a memory and because of their normalcy, their condition is interesting and thought provoking. Our mortal lives are largely defined by limited time. Each book we choose to read, for example, narrows our potential for more reading incrementally.  Ultimately, some great minds will be neglected, even if you get through all of the first tier stuff. Will it be Chomsky? Ibsen? Lao-Tzu? The workers in the afterlife don’t have to worry about it. One woman promises to read a mystery novel that is recommended to her just as soon as she is done with the world encyclopedia. Time is no longer an enemy.

The newly dead are equally interesting. Each person responds differently when his or her position is explained, and each response tells us how that person lived and viewed life. Some immediately go for the hollow experiences they have been conditioned to think of as the heights of fulfillment. For a lascivious old man, it’s his visits to brothels. For a teenage girl, it’s a trip to Disneyland, the “happiest place on earth.” Some people claim to have difficulty recalling even one happy moment, while others have difficulty narrowing it down to one. These initial moments of the film have a documentary feel. These reactions can only work if they are naturalistic, not the runny, mawkish crap Hollywood would dump on us. Kore-eda succeeds thoroughly, and we feel like we are getting a real look at humanity.

The ultimate, and more thoughtful decisions of the characters are equally captivating, and interesting. There is no common basis for the memories. They variously involve, solitude, nature, romantic love, family, security and peace. This is one of the most enjoyable things about After Life: its lack of absolutism. There is no great monolith, standard set of values or single correct path.

One of the themes in After Life is the subjectivity of experience, which allows each person to choose a different kind of memory. The viewing of After Life is subjective in the same way. Once the viewer starts thinking about the central question, it is impossible not to mentally explore the fictional landscape that has been laid out. I found myself imagining various celebrities and historical figures making their decisions. I kept coming back to Adolph Hitler, possibly the most evil man in history and certainly one of the most ridiculous. I figured his memory of choice would be something bizarre and sadomasochistic, like being spanked with a wooden spoon by his mother.

In addition to all of this heavy life and death stuff, After Life is about film. After all, people who are making films in the real world are, in special cases, making memories. For many of us, Charles Foster Kane, Jaws’ maw or the words “you talkin’ to me?” will be favored parts of our memories well into senility. After Life isn’t quite at the level of those films, but for those who connect with it, it won’t soon be forgotten.

Ruthless Ratings

  • Overall: 9
  • Direction: 9
  • Acting: 10
  • Story: 8