After Life (review)

Re-blogged from JapanCinema.net

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Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After Life is a compelling film. It begins with the premise that when we die we go to a facility for a week where the staff helps us select a single memory with which we will live for all eternity. Once we choose, the staff stages and films a representation of that moment using improvised sets and actors. Then at the end of the week, we watch the film recreation on screen and when it is over we simply disappear, to live with that memory forever. Those who are unable (or unwilling) to choose a memory stay on as facility staff to help others until they too make a decision.

It makes sense that a film about filming life is visually fascinating. The main narrative portions of the film were photographed in 16mm by documentary cinematographer Yamazaki Yutaka, while still photographer Sukita Masayoshi filmed the memory sequences using unique combinations of black and white, color, and very grainy 8mm film. After Life juxtaposes different visual styles. In some scenes there are establishing shots and long takes (“pillow shots”) that are almost photographic, and the film is full of pauses and lingering moments that give us time to reflect just like the characters are doing. During interviews with the deceased Kore-eda employs a fixed documentary camera, while during many scenes we follow the caseworkers through the unsteady lens of a handheld camera.

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Kore-eda slowly reveals the film’s mysteries for us. Gradually we learn that everyone is dead, that the caseworkers refused to choose a memory, and that they have their own stories, longings, and regrets. The ordinariness of it all is striking. We see fairly typical Japanese office behavior unfolding in a cold, dusty, shabby, dreary office building. But with great skill Kore-era makes the ordinary utterly fascinating. After Life refuses to indulge in comfortable clichés about memory, even when the staff members try to prompt new arrivals to focus on clichéd moments. Saccharine shortcuts just won’t do. Memories, it turns out, are not primarily visual experiences. They are not replicas of what took place through the eyes of an earlier self. Memories are emotional states that only become manifest through the act of talking about them. Different cues help reproduce these past experiences in the present: weather, food, smells, objects, and especially sounds. As viewers we first rebel against what seem to be hopelessly inadequate stage sets when the staff films each person’s memory. How could people possibly mistake these recreations for the real thing? But that is part of Kore-eda’s point, I think. The film set is simply a springboard to a remembered emotional state.

After Life works against the idea that a faithful memory is an exact replica of what we remember seeing in other ways as well. The film is a showcase for “obsolete” technology. The offices have old rotary phones, piles of books, and no computers. The film technology that records memories is videotapes, and caseworkers can order stacks of grainy VCR tapes that contain imperfectly captured past experiences. Kore-eda seems to be saying that technological wizardry cannot reproduce life as it was, and that in our quest for visual perfection we may have focused too much on verisimilitude and not enough on the emotional content of our lives. After Life is a superb and absorbing film.
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The Year of Living Dangerously (review)

Re-blogged from JapanCinema

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Peter Weir’s film about a reporter caught up in the social unrest and violence of Indonesia in the fall of 1965 was released 30 years ago. With all eyes turned to this period by Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable documentary The Act of Killing, watching The Year of Living Dangerously makes a fine counterpoint. Through the eyes of Billy Kwan (played by the remarkable Linda Hunt), who is both the film’s narrator and chief supporting actor, we follow a young and naïve Mel Gibson playing a young and naïve Australian reporter, Guy Hamilton, dropped into his first overseas posting. He becomes involved with a British attaché (Sigourney Weaver), stumbles around being manipulated by Kwan, and eventually gets caught in a riot and almost killed as the violence began to erupt.

Weir’s Indonesia is suitably dark, mysterious, and troubled. If his goal was to capture the mood of a place and time that was difficult to grasp, Weir did superbly. By 1965 President Sukarno – hero of the national revolution for independence – had parlayed his remarkable charisma and dynamism into a position of international leadership. But Indonesia was a society riven by faltering efforts to democratize, develop economically, fight poverty, and contain radically different solutions to the nation’s many problems. Sukarno tried to balance and play off against each other the powerful Indonesian army, large Islamic groups, and the communists. The Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, was the 3rd largest communist party in the world, and the most impatient at the pace of social change. Hamilton’s break in the film is an exclusive interview with Aidit, the leader of the PKI, courtesy of Kwan’s communist contacts. Hamilton is witness to the collapse of this fragile balancing act, though he understands none of it. An attempted coup on September 30th coup blaming the communists led to the orgy of murder which Oppenheimer exposes and which claimed over 500,000 lives and eradicated communism in Indonesia. None of it made much sense to observers at the time, and it took years to unravel the trail of events – from this perspective Hamilton is a perfect surrogate for our ignorance.

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Beyond the political drama, however, Weir offers us an interesting tale about the photographic gaze. The film is filled with references to the act of seeing: rear-view mirrors, reflective sunglasses, cameras. The camera frequently gazes up from Kwan’s point of view, and in fact Hamilton – not much more than a country bumpkin – is just a foil for the culturally sophisticated and intellectually refined Kwan. Photographer, keeper of dossiers, secret caretaker of the poor, communist sympathizer, Kwan views himself as the one who is able to see all. He is the puppetmaster who uses what he sees to manipulate and maneuver others. But in the end his gaze fails, just as cameras cannot truly capture realty. Kwan gazes and records, but ultimately is impotent, a prisoner of his own fantasy world of secret photographs, hidden files, mistaken characterizations. The ability to see, and to think that by seeing we can control, or even learn, is revealed as powerlessness in the face of terrible poverty, ignorant violence, and corrupted revolution.

Lest we miss the point, Kwan is killed for revealing an anti-Sukarno banner for others to see and Hamilton is clubbed by a soldier and nearly loses his sight. Fleeing one-eyed to the airport, Hamilton makes it to the plane and his lover’s arms as martial law is declared. But there is no happy ending here. For a melodrama, The Year of Living Dangerously becomes a meditation on the death of romance, 1965 followed by the Army’s counter idealism, youth, and hope. Words and eyes fail. It is an engaging if despairing film about a country that is all too often off our global radar, and one which sets the stage for the bloodshed to come in The Act of Killing.
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