In `After Life,' melodrama dilutes a thoughtful idea

August 20, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

A lyrical, mysterious and provocative meditation on the power of memory and narrative, "After Life" is a fascinating speculation on life and death -- until its plot takes a turn so melodramatic that the spell is broken.

Kore-eda Hirokazu ("Mabarosi") has germinated a fascinating idea: What if there were a way-station between Earth and heaven, where the recently deceased could sift through their memories, choose the most happy and meaningful moment of their lives, have it made into a movie, and then move into the next life, where they will live in that moment forever?

In "After Life," that way station is a beautifully crumbling institution, where sentient angels interview incoming clients and then assist them in making their films. Just who these angels are, and how they came to be there, will become clear as the movie goes on; Kore-eda prefers to focus on their clientele, which ranges from a 70-year-old middle manager who can't think of a good memory, to a teen-ager who can only talk about Disneyland, to an elderly Alzheimer's patient, to a lovely 70-year-old woman who was happiest when dancing for her brother.

These characters and their stories are captured with great delicacy by Kore-eda, whose use of 16 mm film stock gives "After Life" a luminously grainy, documentary feel. (Many of the elderly characters in the film were actually interviewed by the filmmaker during his research.) As they tell their stories -- most of them quotidian moments of joy and balance -- filmgoers can't help but reflect on their own lives, resulting in a narrative duet between audience and screen that testifies to film's most transformative powers.

But midway through, the story takes a turn when one of the angels, Mochizuki (Arata), discovers that he has something in common with the man he has been assigned to help. What started as an imaginative take on life, death and the cinema's transcendent power concludes with a pat plot twist altogether inconsistent with the restraint of what's gone before. But that misstep shouldn't detract from "After Life's" haunting message that, no matter where we are or what we're doing, we could be constructing our own heaven right here on Earth.

`After Life'

(In Japanese, with English subtitles)

Starring Arata, Oda Erika, Terajima Susmu, Naito Takashi

Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu

Released by Artistic License

Rating: Unrated (nothing objectionable)

Running time: 118 minutes

Sun score: **1/2

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