Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda’s notion of the afterlife as a bureaucracy was hardly original in 1998. Ferenc Molnár’s play Liliom (and its several film versions) and Sutton Vane’s play Outward Bound (and its film versions — not to mention Tim Burton’s more fanciful Beetlejuice) all got there first. Koreeda’s film, however, is a very different proposition, though one that bears similarities to its predecessor. The difference lies in this film’s approach. People — or presumably their spirits — arrive at a rather rundown building where they are assigned a caseworker. The caseworker — over the course of a week — then helps them to choose one single moment from their lives to take with them and the one with which they’ll spend eternity. But it doesn’t end there. The chosen memories have to be rather laboriously made into short films by the caseworkers in a makeshift movie studio. It is only after the dead have viewed these crafted memories that they move on. Koreeda’s approach is very workmanlike and straightforward. There are no mystical trappings or indeed any kind of mysticism. It’s all very businesslike and any traditional ideas about heaven and hell have no place in it. Oh, there are mysteries — some of which the film gives up as it plays out — but none are quite what we expect from such a story. A great deal of the film is made up of mundane interview footage — or what seems mundane. The film’s strength lies in the way these interviews inevitably trigger our own thoughts on the matter. I suspect it is impossible to watch the film and not wander off into your own thoughts as to what memory you would choose — and consider the enormity of such a task. This takes the idea of “thought-provoking” into an entirely different realm. Unfortunately, the scenes of the transformation of the memories into film don’t really live up to the other sections of the movie, but that’s a fairly minor quibble when placed alongside the way the exploration of the idea gets under your skin and haunts you long after the film ends.
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