Slow, delicate, utterly perplexing. Hirokazu Koreeda makes another film that's either (a) interminable and dull or (b) human and brilliant, depending on your point of view.
It's not at all what I'd expected from a synopsis. It's set in a way station for the dead. Every Monday, a group of freshly deceased people show up. Counsellors talk to them for a week, helping them to sift through their memories before passing on to eternity. This sounded fascinating. I assumed it would be SF, or fantasy, or speculative fiction, or... something like that.
It's not. There's nothing magical or ethereal about the film at all. It's realistic, shot in what looks like an abandoned 1950s hospital. The counsellors are simply doing a job. They grumble about difficult cases to each other. They go home at the end of the day. (Question: to where?) If they go walking, they'll meet shopping centres, people, traffic going past and so on. (Question: can they see each other? Is the land of the dead simply another part of our own world, with an address, a postcode and a telephone number?) Extraordinary metaphysical questions are raised by implication and ignored.
It's not even shot romantically. Old documentaries about the NHS will look like this.
The counsellors' job involves persuading their clients to choose a single memory from their lives. This will be the only memory they can retain in eternity, with everything else being forgotten. That sounds horrific to me, but I suppose it's marginally better than oblivion. However on reflection, maybe this forgetting is simply what our minds do naturally by themselves over time and the counsellors here are just helping to mitigate this. Anyway, everyone has to choose a memory by Wednesday and then after that the counsellors will shoot a small movie for each one. Everyone watches these. They then pass on... assuming of course that they'd managed to choose a memory.
This is mind-boggling. Memories and reality are different things, of course, but then you've also got the massive additional layer of unreality of movie-making. Why do they do it? What's more, with one difficult client, we see that the counsellors have a complete VHS record of everyone's lives. They didn't need to make movies. They could just play the tapes. However instead they go through the rigamarole of production meetings, set design, make-up and so on, perhaps to preserve that unique subjectivity of a memory without crushing it with the facts. Furthermore the reason they're making films is because they live in the real world, not being angels or fairies, and that's the best technology currently available. A thousand years ago they'd have been telling stories around a camp fire.
Much of the film is documentary-style. There's no metaphysics, unless a client happens to bring it up in their chat with the counsellors. I had trouble with the film because I couldn't get my head around the set-up and it's only later, having thought things through, that it's starting to come together for me. Koreeda doesn't care about all those SF questions, you see. What he's really interested in is the people. Half of them aren't actors reading a script, but real people answering this question honestly on camera. What's more, I was convinced at that time that that had to be the case, from their spontaneity. Real people being themselves are better than actors reading scripts. The first half of this film is mostly talking heads, discussing what in their lives was most important for them. It's both boring and fascinating.
The second half is more scripted, with discoveries about the past lives of the counsellors. One has a personal reaction to one of his clients. There's also a passively stroppy 18-year-old girl who's working as an assistant there and seems to be rejecting the whole thing. Fair enough. It's a lot to take on board.
Incidentally, Hirokazu Koreeda wanted to make this film because he remembered his grandfather getting Alzheimer's and slowly forgetting everything about himself and his family.
There are three levels on which you might watch this film. A popular one will be to be bored shitless. Another is to accept everything and let yourself sink into the humanity being portrayed. That'll be how the film won a ton of prizes at film festivals and has reviewers raving about it. The third is to get sucked into the hows, whys and wherefores of this unique afterlife processing. If someone wanted to remember a sexual event, would the counsellors be hiring porn actresses? What happens to dead babies? It's also striking that none of the clients are angry or upset about their deaths, for instance. They're just being themselves. They chat. I think Koreeda has it all worked out, though, in his mind.
If you could choose one memory from your own life, what would it be?