After Life - B+
Viewed May 22,1999 at Film Forum

There is a way station between this life and the next where the participants have one week to decide what single memory they want to keep. Sounds like a rather cutesy premise, don't it? What's remarkable about Hirakazu Kore-Eda's After Life is how cleverly he sidesteps the potential pitfalls in his scenario. The way station is a humble, vaguely decrepit building with beaten-up furniture; it's the entryway to heaven as an aging college dormitory. The staff who helps the newly dead choose come across as dedicated social workers (with their own corporate logo). About the only otherwordly aspect is the efficiency of the bureaucracy.

After Life's structure is also unusual. It follows one week in the life of this ethereal agency as they process a group of 22 recently deceased. The first part of the movie is spent letting them describe what their most cherished memories were. Nothing fancy here; the camera simply gazes at them as they tell their stories and lets the emotional power of their experience speak for itself. But that's only the first half. In the film's boldest conceptual conceit, they now film the described memories so that the subjects can recapture the experience before they move on. It's film as subjective experience; a greater truth than simple objective reality, represented here by the humble videotape. Unlike many metacinematic films[1], this exploration of cinema's meaning doesn't come across as the kind of self-important navelgazing much beloved by aging "masters"; it's an honest examination of the power of film to be more real than real.

[1] This year's Tango, for example.