In After Life, the recently deceased arrive at a remote facility, greeted by councillors who explain their situation: they must look back through their life and choose a most treasured memory to be recreated and filmed by the staff. Once they watch it back, they will move on to the afterlife to relive it forever, foregoing all other memories.
This idea of a personalised heaven fills most of the arrivals with excitement, looking back across their lives and telling their stories with infectious brio. However, other cases are more complex. One man says he has no happy memories, another refuses to be forced to choose and one uncovers a shared history with his councillor that changes things for everyone.
The stories really are the star here. There is real variety in both the subject matter and the telling, but they are all equally affecting. A man grateful for the stability of a passionless marriage, a soldier recounting his unlikely survival, an elderly lady regressed to childhood, a young man more interested in his dreams than his memories.
All the interviews are shot like a documentary, the interviewees talk into the camera with only occasional prompts from off-screen. The genius here is that many of the interviews were conducted with real people recounting their real histories. The result is extremely immersive.
The rest of the film follows a similar pragmatic style but there are some lovely visual flourishes such as the way the deceased seemingly appear in the waiting room from the mist outside, the long shots of the staff wandering the maze of corridors and some playful moments on set, including the councillors making clouds of out cotton wool and shaking a train car by hand.
A story like this could easily become mawkish and overwrought, but Kore-eda does a superb job of balancing the ethereal with the mundane. Councillors chatter about the afterlife while tending plants or cleaning up, the fantasy of the arrivals reliving their memories is counterbalanced by the practicalities of recreating them. The more we see the memories of the arrivals’ pasts intercut with the grounded routines of the facility, the staff begin to present a mystery of their own. Why are they there? Why haven’t they moved on like everyone else?
Ebullient in theme if not tempo, After Life’s intriguing premise invites us to consider the vagaries of memory. What would we choose as our happiest memory? How do you even measure happiness? How do you distil an entire life into one solitary moment? The characters grapple with this theme in various ways, but the overall outlook is one of optimism and gratitude.
After Life is an assured and charming film that will leave you with a lot to think about.Find your cinema and book tickets