Monday, May 4, 2009

Wandafuru raifu (After Life)

A somewhat more obscure film than my first review - Wandafuru raifu (literally "Wonderful life") is an international piece released in the US back in 1998 under the localized title After life. Similar to Brick, my intention in reviewing this film is a mostly selfish one (I just wanted to watch this movie again), but I was also drawn to the film's nuanced use of gender in telling a story and presenting an aesthetic. Japanese writer/director Koreeda Hirokazu managed to take a simple question and turn it into a film that connects deeply, without the baggage of melodrama or convolution. At the end viewers are left to ponder the quiet joys in life - and that is really what this film is all about.

And what is that question you ask?

"If you had to choose one memory to take with you into all of eternity, what would it be?"

The story in After Life follows a group of counselors who work at a sort of waystation or halfway house for people who have recently died. The job of the counselors is to speak with the souls in order to determine which memory they want to take with them into, well... whatever comes next. The catch is that the recently deceased only have a few days to decide. At the end of the decision process the counselors recreate the memories as short films for the deceased to be a part of in order to relive their experience. The fact that no one knows what "eternity" means or looks like isn't the point of the film - the purpose lies in finding meaning in one's life by searching back through the years.
Koreeda's early background in film was primarily in documentaries, which may explain why After Life spends so much time fleshing out the dialogue and revelations between counselor/patient in interviewer/interviewee scenarios. This style works well and really gives the film an intimate feeling.
The conflict of the film (if you could call it conflict) lies in the relationship between two of the counselors. Protagonist Shiori (female) is sort of a counselor-in-training to Mochizuki-san (male), and although there is little interaction shown between the two, it becomes obvious that there are feelings for the other going in at least one direction...
The film is minimalistic in almost every sense of the word - the setting is bleak but not quite depressing; the dialogue is brief and vague, and there is almost no use of music. But minimalistic does not mean emotionless - there is a lot of feeling in the film - it's quiet, but it's memorable.

The biggest "feminist" question/thought/quandary I have with this film is whether or not Koreeda is effectively directing from a "female gaze." The whole question of gendered "gaze" comes from an influential feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey - particularly her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (Screen, 1975). So as not to bore anyone to death I'll be quick. Mulvey basically proposed this idea that film is created from a dominant male perspective, specifically for a male audience, i.e. the "male gaze." Therefore Mulvey proposed that sexism in film goes beyond how women are presented and reaches the boundaries of why film exists and how it is produced.
In response to Mulvey's notion of the male gaze other feminist film theorists like Judith Mayne and Teresa de Lauretis wrote on women's involvement in the production and consumption of cinema. De Lauretis in particular wrote on what she saw as "female spectatorship," an alternative to the assumed male gaze, and explained how it was possible. The first step is simply female authorship in film - women being involved in the process. But de Lauretis' theory reached further into arguing for an aesthetic specific to women directors - and this is where I feel the film After Life posses an interesting question.
There are several aesthetic, as well as narrative choices that Koreeda (male) made in the production of After Life that remind me of what de Lauretis defined as "female spectatorship." Although fairly ambiguous in nature, some of the filmic elements de Lauretis wrote about included a focus on "in between moments" and concern for relational drama as opposed to conflict drama between characters. I've mentioned the relational drama in After Life already, but there is also a focus on transitory moments, or moments of contemplation - such as Shiori spending time in the mirror adjusting and readjusting her hair, or a solitary walk through a bamboo grove without any real intent. These kinds of scenes remind me of what de Lauretis was describing as "in between moments," and I can't help but wonder how much gender plays into constructing a scene like this.
I really didn't mean to spend so much time in the theory behind this stuff, but I thought I'd bring it up because when I first read through some of de Lauretis' arguments, Koreeda's film came to mind.
This review is getting a little out of hand so I'm going to try and cut it off somewhere around here. I guess what I'm curious about with After Life is whether or not the gender of the director is easily discernible. What would seeing the film have been like if someone had told me it was directed by a woman? What are some of the gender/culture implications? (that's a whole other analysis waiting to happen). And finally what does it take to command/incorporate a "female gaze" into a film? Is a male director capable of that?
A lot of these questions spill over into (feminist) film criticism in general so this probably won't be last time they apply to other movies. If you haven't had the pleasure already, do yourself a favor and pick up this movie - it's a great "feel good movie" that's context is death and mood is deeply reflective - which I know sounds morbid but you'll understand when it's all over.

p.s. seriously, what memory would you choose?

1 comment:

  1. Rip this to shreds if it is completely off-base, but could the film have feminine characteristics because Japanese culture is more open to androgynous sensibilities when it comes to forms of art? I feel like (It's definitely an anecdotal feeling, because I have about zero hard knowledge of Japanese culture) Japan is on the other side of the spectrum from the machismo of Latin America.

    I know that a lot of famous Japanese poetry from centuries ago was written by women, but I think that's probably irrelevant to my point. Anyway, I've actually seen this film! ...Can you tell that I'm procrastinating on my final paper for my senior capstone? It's on the evolution of phenotypic plasticity. Bleh. I don't even like evolutionary biology.

    Oh. Favorite memory: That's REALLY hard. I think I'd need a councilor to decide if it's something like playing a garage show with the high school rock band, something in the Joe/Joe/Jared/Danny/Matt era, 1st grade, a long conversation with a loved one, long walks with my girlfriend on weeknights through the empty streets of downtown... I honestly don't even know if I would choose something simple or a landmark event.