It is probably safe to say that very few films these days know very much about real life. Safer to say that most films these days know even less about the nature of death. A lot of movies about death are more interested in the celestial wallpaper. The afterlife on film is usually a perspective on what Heaven and Hell might look like and those who die are usually more interested in tying up romantic loose ends or returning to unfinished business. Very few films have ever matter-of-factly considered the afterlife from the point of view of the traveler who has crossed the threshold to the undiscovered country.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s Afterlife is almost alone in it’s contemplation on the importance of the single moment or moments that shape our humanity. In 1999, Koreeda created this absolutely beautiful examination of the stopover between life and death where the choice of a lifetime must be made: What single memory would you carry with you to your eternal reward? The examination is vessled by 22 travelers who, for various reasons, have died and arrive from a white light to a place that is neither here nor there. They are in a way-station between the end of life and their eternal lodgings. The counselors who work here meet and interview several recently dead people each week. The travelers are tasked with choosing one memory from a lifetime that they will carry over into the eternity that awaits them. Once a memory is selected it will be turned into a film and screened before the patron vanishes with the memory, all other memories having been eliminated.
But what memory? What single memory is worth an eternity? Carrying the best memory would be heaven while surely carrying the worst would be hell. To that end the travelers find this a difficult task for various reasons. One man discovers that he has no memory that he wishes to carry on. Another discovers that he has too many. One decides that it was her experience on the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland.
We meet these people through interviews while the staff works diligently to create the productions for the films that will be screened. We learn very little about the staff who have apparently chosen to spend eternity at the station helping others select a memory. There is a moment when we come close, a connection between one of the patrons and the man who didn’t think that he had a memory (of this I will leave you to discover). This moment provides one of the most emotional moments in the film and provides him with a reason for choosing the memory most precious to his heart.
This is the most profound examination of the nature of humanity that I have ever seen on film. There are no special effects, no gimmickry, no scenes that are thrown together to hold our interest. This is a movie that very gently reaches out to those lucky enough to be caught up in it’s contemplative spell and to be spellbound by it’s message The message is that memory is all we have. No matter what financial or possessive objects we have gained in our lives our memories lie at the core of what makes us intelligent beings. It is the thing that connects our learning, our maturity and shapes our social connection. It is the core of our being, the connection point of our humanity.
On the emotional level, the film works through contemplation, through imagining ourselves as the wayward patrons. The movie sees the selection process as very matter of fact. Koreeada is more interested in the people who have arrived here than in the place to which they have arrived. That spareness allows us to contemplate their process rather than their surroundings.
I saw After Life shortly after it’s initial release in 1999 and years later it still resonates in my mind. When I am idle, staring at the ceiling when sleep refuses to settle my mind, I contemplate the question posed by Koreeda’s film and to this day I am nowhere near a decision. If I had to choose one memory it might be agony because my number of candidates would go as high as five hundred or if I wrote them down closer to a thousand. For that, I feel fortunate, fortunate and grateful that my life can contain that kind of contentment. If I am given the kind of task given to the people in After Life, it is my hope that whatever I settle on can be turned into a film that is as gentle, peaceful and affirming as Koreeda’s beautiful work.