There are some movies with a premise so dumb they stand no chance of ever being good (Police Academy 3). There are other movies that begin with a dumb premise but through the skills of the director and the actors the movie transcends its material (Speed). There are some movies that begin with such a great premise that the movie is bound to be worth watching no matter what the director or actors do (12 Angry Men). There are other movies that the premise is great and through the efforts of those involved the movie becomes a classic, hitting full force on all cylinders.
The Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu's (Maborosi) movie After Life falls into the latter category. The premise of the movie is thought provoking and wonderfully original- that after a person dies they spend one week at a way station out in the country where they must choose one single memory from their life to bring with them into eternity. Once that memory is selected the staff at the station help stage a filmed recreation of the memory for the person to forever live in.
Kore-eda provides just the right touch to tell the story. Everything is told in a matter of fact manner. The gray late fall-early winter scenery is alternated with the plain school building that serves as this transitory station. The staff at the station does a workmanlike job with their assignments. This isn't a movie about a pearly gate heaven, or angels with wings. It's not a movie about religion or God. Rather it's a movie about how what we remember changes how we feel, and how we feel colors what we remember. One can imagine what the same material would have been made into if it had been a Hollywood production (see Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze's Ghost).
The dead that arrive each have unique choices to make. One elderly woman with a shy manner and kind motherly smile selects a childhood memory- when her brother bought her a fancy red dress that she could wear in her dance classes. A young girl chooses a trip she took with friends to Disneyland. A seventy-year-old gentleman has a difficult time remembering any happy memories from his life. He is thus encouraged to view videotapes of his entire life to help jar his memory. This in its own way seems like a trip into hell- as he sees the many regrets, the many things he would have done differently all over again with no ability to change any of it. Another younger man refuses to choose- believing by not choosing he's taking more responsibility for his life.
Ultimately After Life asks several intriguing questions about the nature of memories. At what point can we believe what we remember? How much do we naturally embellish our memories, filtering out the pain and the regret to remember selected happier moments? In this manner are our memories any different than our dreams? One woman who in life worked as a prostitute selects a memory with the only customer she knew who seemed to like her for who she really was. Her memory is of a rendezvous they once had at a fancy hotel. When the staff goes to recreate the memory they discover that it didn't happen the way she remembered. The gentleman never showed up.
The notion that in the after life memories must be reenacted on film is also intriguing. The interaction between art and life is juxtaposed as we the viewers naturally think about what memory we ourselves would select. Kore-eda said as he was making the film he remembered his grandfather in the throes of Alzheimer's, unable to recognize his own grandson which reinforced the belief our identities are intermingled with our memories.
We all reach a point in our lives where our memories overwhelm our ability to imagine. Later on as memories grow in number and in depth they even begin to alter our existence. Perhaps the most touching moment in a very touching film is when one of the young women worries about selecting any memories in fear that she herself will be forgotten by others. Her fears are alleviated as she sees a coworker's joy in discovering a long forgotten moment spent with another is what that particular person unexpectedly elected to keep with them when they died. One never knows whose dreams we appear in, whose lives we have unknowingly touched, or whose memories we have made just a little happier.