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Life After 'After Life'

[whitespace] Afterlife Better Off Dead: In 'Afterlife,' the deceased have but one memory to savor for all eternity.

Japanese film about a way station between life and death reminds us how important memories can be

By Richard von Busack

The Japanese import After Life is the first interesting movie since Beetlejuice on the subject of the afterworld bureaucracy. In Tim Burton's 1987 film, the afterlife was about as spiritual as the Department of Social Services. (The film's joke, out of the poet Dante, had it that suicides were condemned to be social workers for eternity.) After Life, by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, takes place during the course of a week, Monday to Monday, in a "facility" between our world and the next.

Kore-Eda's idea of the Waiting Room of the Beyond is a large, shabby group of buildings, like the campus of a decrepit private college. The paint is peeling, and the electricity is uncertain (one hair dryer is enough to blow the fuses). The walls are painted dark five feet up from the floor, so as not to show the dirt. The employees look like young people who have accepted a job out of desperation.

This Eden advertises its second-rateness in every scene, and eventually you wonder if the wealthy get a better facility where the welcoming band is in tune and the corporate logo isn't stamped on the rough towels and cheap stationery. But the group of nearly 20, mostly elderly, Japanese who have come to remember their lives are almost all in the proper mood in which to face their death. None of them would think of raging against the light, and the dead souls politely accept the condolences of the counselors.

The deceased have three days to recollect their one favorite memory. Using a less-than-state-of-the-art film studio adjacent to the dorm, the employees will make a film of your memory. At the end of the week, they will screen it for you and the other clients. Then "you can move to a place where you can be assured of spending eternity with that memory," says Nakamura-san, the slightly pompous head of this nameless Afterlife Corporation.

To jog the recollections of one elderly man, the counselors retrieve his entire life--stacked up, 71 videotapes for 71 years--so that he can scan through it for clues. The old man discovers that the life tapes are only for reference, not for enjoyment; everything on them looks like a bad television dramatization.

The one lecher among the dead, who dwells on a week spent with a hooker in northern Japan, eventually decides to retain a memory of his daughter's wedding. The weight of losing memories forever steadies the newly dead. You can see how impossible it is to define a life by a handful of minutes--and how vital it would be to choose well.

Movies that remind you of how sweet and precious life is are usually sweet and precious themselves--you know, the ones that end with some movie star, grinning, arms akimbo, waltzing face up in the rain as John Williams punishes the violins? After Life recalls a scene from a much less sentimental American movie. It's Bernstein's speech in Citizen Kane. A journalist interviews the financier Bernstein at the end of a life of money making and travel. What does he remember? A girl he saw on a ferry-crossing 50 years ago, wearing white gloves and a white dress .

Afterlife (Unrated; 118 min.), directed and written by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, photographed by Masayoshi Sukita and Yutaka Yamazaki, plays July 23-29 at the Castro Theatre.

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From the July 19, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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