Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
“If you could choose one memory to take with you forever, what would you choose?”
This is a question that is of utmost human in nature, not just because humans are the only species that aware that they have memory and are able to recall them, but also because to ask that question is ponder at the very core of what made us human; after all, when you strip us bare of the flesh, muscles, fat, and bones, the only thing remains is memory. We are made of memories, and memories are our own personal and individual baggage that we carry everywhere, sometimes even to the afterlife. Kore-eda Hirokazu’s 1998 film After Life echoes this thought, in its attempt to open up the suitcases of memory, pouring the contents out, and making it lighter by forcing its characters, and its audience, to choose only what matters most.
The film chronicles the work of a group of social workers, at a lodge where everyone will go after they breathe their last, a kind of purgatory. Those who arrive at the lodge will be asked to choose a single memory that they will take with them to the afterlife, and all their other memories beyond that point will be erased. The social workers, themselves the deceased from long ago, helped the dead to finalize their chosen memories, and then recreate them as movies on the big screen, to serve as the infinite loop that the dead will see in perpetuity. In other words, After Life not only talks about memories, but also the telling and retelling of them, either through word-of-mouth or through representations in the form of motion pictures. Indeed, the film raises questions on the nature of cinema and memories and their connections, on how, for example, reenacting a memory on screen will make it even more real than the memory itself. Watching After Life is like watching a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of another documentary. The audience is led through different parts of the creative process, from the gathering of information, writing the script, location scouting, choosing props, improvising to achieve certain practical effects, debating on how to film certain scenes, how to best retain the faithfulness of actual events, and how to film them the way they are remembered.
After Life essentially is story-telling. The film is shot in an interview-documentary style, having its characters sit at the table and recall their fondest memories directly at the camera. There are tender moments, such as the one in which a teenage girl, who died so young, chooses the first and only time she went to Disneyland as her best memory, not knowing that thirty other girls also made the same choices. There is a scene where the social workers, upon listening to a man telling how he still remembers what happened when he was only 6-month-old, take turns recalling the earliest memory they could still remember. To watch After Life is to watch countless people telling and retelling countless life stories, and we could all relate to them despite knowing that they are all fiction, because we could easily find ourselves in those stories, in the first time going to an amusement park, the first time going to kindergarten, or the first time meeting someone you really love. In this way, After Life achieves an almost universal-quality in its plot, unlike any other movies about memories I have seen before, with the exception of perhaps The Tree of Life (2011) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).
For those who have just died, to be given the chance to choose one memory, out of thousands, is also a chance to reexamine their life and the choices they made, and think back on their life purposes. For the older people, many of their chosen memories were from their childhood, when the world was still new and enticing, when they were young and unafraid and without worry. The childhood memories still stuck with them fifty or so years later, and eventually became the memories they want to take away to the afterlife, which made me wonder if it is fruitful for them to live that long, to grow old but always looking back. Yet, for those who died young, some were having trouble choosing what their happiest memory is, with some even refusing to choose outright. So maybe a part of growing old is to be able to learn how to cherish the act of looking back; when you are young you would rarely look back to the times when you were even younger. The more you age, the more you appreciate your past and what is really important to you; thinking in that way, perhaps aging itself should also be embraced, and finding meanings in the past is as important as living your fullest in the present.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, one of the authors I greatly respect, wrote in his review for After Life that “perhaps a great movie, or a really entertaining one, feels for a while like eternity (in the positive sense), meaning that we lose track of time and are swept away in bliss.” (*) That was exactly how I felt after watching After Life, a film that takes place within eternity, and about how memories are eternal. It is only after seeing this film that I understood why Hirokazu Kore-eda is often called a “humanist” director, and often compared to the great Yasujiro Ozu. Along with Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), and Shoplifters (2018), After Life is among a handful of films that portrays human life and emotions with the care and tenderness they deserve.