Film: This thought will stay with you for a very long time

Imagine choosing the most wonderful moment of your life and living it for ever. For Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu, this is a vision of death. By Roger Clarke

If you were asked to select one single memory from your life to accompany you into eternity, what would it be? This stark eidetic idea is the core of young Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu's feature follow- up to his majestical study of loss and bereavement, Maborosi (1995), where a woman lives out her life in the roaring limbo left by her husband's inexplicable death on a suburban train track.

After the nauseating slew of sentimental movies that Hollywood regularly turns out on the subject of the afterlife, Hirokazu's interpretation of the idea is as cold and refreshing as the snow water from a sacred mountain.

His film After Life explores a beautifully simple metaphysical conceit. We find ourselves observers in the not unfriendly realm of the recently dead. They arrive every week at a kind of half-way house, a tangible emotional stageing post in some ethereal realm that all the same seems wintry and real.

Here, sympathetic staff of all ages (but tellingly, mostly young) help the dead to choose that one inspiring moment of their lives that they want to remember for ever and to inhabit for all eternity.

No practical judgement of their lives is involved. Those who fail to choose simply end up becoming the staff at these places themselves. In truth it is an afterlife where one epiphanic moment exists more powerfully than any amount of demented spasms of hellfire or fluffy, enchanted heavens.

At 36, Hirokazu is a remarkable artist, one who is preoccupied with the troubling vagaries and shifting sands of memory within our essential identities.

Hirokazu's deep interest in memory was prompted in part by the childhood experience of watching his grandfather succumb to the withering horrors of Alzheimer's disease (how sad that other wonderful recent, tender Asian - in this case Cantonese - movie about Alzheimer's, Anne Hui's Summer Snow, has not found a distributor here).

One character in After Life is an old lady who suffered from Alzheimer's disease before she died. We are told that what has happened to her is quite painfully simple. She has chosen her one memory already. She chose before she died.

Hirokazu is second only to Werner Herzog in his commitment to the idea of documentary as an essential adjunct to his feature film-making (he's made 12 such documentaries so far).

In the time since Maborosi came out he has made the award-winning Without Memory which chronicles the real `afterlife' of an actual young father's adjustment to a hospital blunder which destroyed his short-term memory.

In many ways it recalls Herzog's earliest documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) which examines the eerie hinterland of the simultaneously deaf and blind. Are people with no memory dead? Are you only truly dead when you have been forgotten?

"I wanted to choose memories that would directly stimulate the five senses of the audience - including sound, taste and smell," says Hirokazu, a man much given to disconcertingly long, intense pauses when he considers answers.

To uncover a storehouse of such memories for After Life, he doggedly interviewed some 500 volunteers. "Half of the people in the movie are real people. And even with the actors, many of them are telling stories about themselves."

Their chosen moment is literally `filmed' for the dead by an actual film crew - the dead watch it, merge with it, and never seem to come out of the cinema again.

It's all done on a budget and the seedy, decayed building where this all takes place is straight out of a modern Russian film (how good to know that God, like our very own earthly politicians, doesn't `throw money' at problems). It's a film about film, deprivation of sense and austere metaphysics that would make surely make Herzog glow with pleasure.

When asked why he chose not to show his audience any of the imaginary films being made in these afterlife studios, Hirokazu is very clear on the matter. It would be like a priest ratting on a confessional, one suspects. "In one rough cut lasting five hours, we did show them. But then I began to realise that it wasn't appropriate for either the dead or the audience to see those memories represented as images."

His language is telling. No doubt this was partly out of deference to the real people involved and the problems of pseudo-filming their most precious recollection. But it is also, perhaps, something to do with Hirokazu's unspoken conviction that he is in some sense performing the same function of the heavenly film studio in the movie.

As old people tell their tales of being starving Japanese soldiers in the Second World War, or the dance-steps they first took as a bashful teenager wearing red shoes, Hirokazu has committed one memory of their lives to film and they will be remembered centuries from now. They will exist.

It's not surprising to discover then, that whenever Hirokazu is asked, as he always is, what would be the one memory he would choose for all eternity, he replies that he wouldn't choose. He would become one of the non-committal staff of this crumbling celestial institute and help others to film their solitary redeeming moment. "I would choose to polish my directorial skills," he responds, slyly, with a trace or mordant humour. The right not to choose, of course, is the only genuine right available to humanity. It is those characters who actually cannot choose who are the most interesting in the film - the bolshie teenage girl trainee played with great aplomb by Erika Oda and her immediate boss, a soldier killed in World War Two who is still 22 in the afterlife, are the two major figures of the halfway house.

But their clients also, one a 70-year-old played by Taketoshi Naito and one a kid played by Yusuke Iseya, don't take easily to the idea of stripping everything out of their existence but for one superb image. The feisty, punkish Iseya in many ways is the voice of the director - refusing to choose for moral reasons, whereas the old man simply cannot choose because he is unable to find one happy or transcendental moment in his entire life.

I craved for at least one character who deliberately chose a bad memory to accompany himself forever - surely, hell - but alas Hirokazu didn't deliver on this score.

At the Toronto festival earlier this year a bidding war broke out with Hollywood studios vying for the re-make rights for After Life, which in Japan, rather delightfully, is called Wonderful Life.

There have, after all, been successful `afterlife' films from Hollywood - Jacob's Ladder, Heaven Can Wait, and an upcoming blockbuster I can't name without spoiling the plot (you don't know it's an afterlife film until the end) - but will this delicate Japanese tale about how we edit our lives, and which puts humanity above sentiment and religion, survive in the land of the easy sob and the bible bash? We'll just have to wait and see.

`After Life' is showing at the ICA (0171- 930 3647) from 1-28 October

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