After Life: What Would You Choose?

This will be an unashamedly personal post. I hope you forgive the indulgence.

This week I saw Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s After Life in the cinema. This was a semi-big deal for me. Ever since catching Kore-Eda’s adorable 2015 feature Our Little Sister on streaming service MUBI some years ago, I have been catching up on the great Japanese director’s work, and eagerly awaiting new releases. When a filmmaker is from a western or simply English speaking background, filling in these blanks in the UK is easy. But world cinema is often trickier. Popular service Netflix is grossly incompetent at providing for this audience, for instance. Seeing past work can be costly.

Following Kore-Eda’s success with Shoplifters last year, a precious re-release of four of his films is currently happening, of which After Life is perhaps the most famous or acclaimed. It will arrive in a boxset from the BFI in July along with Maborosi, Nobody Knows and Still Walking. Ahead of this release, Picturehouse Cinemas are running all four films in their Discover Tuesday strand; an invaluable (mostly) weekly event that screens hard-to-see fiction and non-fiction films from around the globe.

This week was the turn of After Life. The 1998 film seems like something of an outlier in Kore-Eda’s catalogue. It is set in the afterlife, which appears to be similar to our own world. Here, however, new arrivals are given three days to choose the most precious memory from their lives. This will then be recreated as a short film by employees of this limbo realm. When you view your film you transcend to the next plain of existence where you live in that memory, loosing all others.

It’s a lovely idea and the film takes it to some fascinating places. But even while watching I wondered what I would pick, and would it take me three days to decide? I would have thought it would come immediately. But I have been thinking about it ever since, and its harder. I’ve narrowed it down to two choices.

As I’ve mentioned before on these pages, 2005 was a bittersweet year for me, involving some devastating losses, heartache and surgery. But its the year both my choices come from. A vivid year, then.

The first is disarmingly simple and makes me wonder if you’re ever truly aware of happiness while you’re experiencing it.

It was the summer, probably days before a violent death would shake the year irreparably. I remember it being a day off of work. I was fortunate enough to work with my best friend in a shop in a small coastal town. Between shifts we would often spend time together and, being 22 at that time, part of that involved going out to clubs, dancing. The memory is not of clubbing (though I remember vividly how sticky and smoky those experiences were), but of driving into the city hours beforehand.

We lived – and continue to live (though now we’re estranged) – in a rural area. As soon as you leave an even marginally built up town you’re surrounded by verdant greens. I recall sitting in the passenger seat of my friend’s car with the window right down. The summer sun was bright and warm and the hedgerows clipped by us at speed. The greens of the leaves undulating and sparkling with hot yellow. As passenger, my iPod Classic was hooked up to the car’s stereo system and I was in charge of the tunes. It being 2005, I was probably playing LCD Soundsystem or something else issued on DFA. Perhaps Bright Eyes or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, who we also dug greatly. And I remember the wind buffeting me through the open window. I had long hair and it was twirled and whipped by the wind. I remember feeling the ripples of it across and inside my tshirt (god, I was slim and took it for granted).

That’s it. That’s all it is. But that driving has stayed with me, inexplicably, for years. Like some fulcrum. I associate it with youth and freedom; zipping along the A3052 toward Exeter. Was I happiest then?

The other memory that I keep coming back to surprises me and is from probably just 2 or 3 months earlier.

I had corrective surgery on my left knee and was bed-ridden for a few weeks. My knee had been repeatedly dislocating because I have little to no natural cartilage fixing it in place. The bone below the knee – the tibia – was purposefully broken and shards of it used to create artificial cartilage to support the patella. Then the bone was fused with two pins and a metal plate. It was painful and perpetually uncomfortable. I had, in effect, to learn to walk all over again (or so it felt).

In the weeks right after surgery I couldn’t get about very much. I still lived at home and came to feel like a potted plant holed up in my room. Summer was coming and though I had a good circle of friends, visitors were scarce. People were either working or out being young and I certainly didn’t begrudge them for it. I also loved a girl.

She didn’t feel the same way, it turned out, but that’s fine. That’s the way it goes sometimes. She had long raven hair and the cutest chin. She was awkward, moody, fond of negating her own worth (which was frustrating but also part of her). She wore a lot of black and scrunched up her nose when she thought about things. We didn’t listen to the same music or hold many of the same opinions, but still – for a short time at least – we were close. I loved her.

And of all people, she visited me the most. As I’ve mentioned, I live in a rural area. She lived a few towns over; what amounts to a 10 mile distance, probably. But she drove to see me several times a week. I would be lying on my bed and she would sit by my feet or side and we would watch TV or play fight or talk or not.

Soon after, she moved away to live with a guy she had met online who she never talked about. Very abruptly, actually, and she didn’t tell me she was going and that hurt a lot back then. I saw her again once after that – in fact we went and saw Marie Antoinette together while she was home for a weekend – but that was it. She was gone and she cut out the life she left behind, as best as I could tell. She changed her number or just ghosted me and that was that. Occasionally I look for her on social media, but I’ve not found her. Some friendships are temporary after all, and maybe finding her would be pointless anyway.

But despite the pain and discomfort and the mix of emotions and the difficulty, my second memory is of her visiting. Of us just being. It’s not exactly a happy memory. It’s thorny and mixed. But I’d live there if I could, even now. Maybe that paints me in an unfavourable light, but its the truth.

I feel like my writing on film has hit a plateau lately. I’ve not enjoyed films that have played well with audiences and that’s made me feel like a spoilsport. Or I’ve struggled to make the writing dynamic or captivating. It’s frowned upon, but I like making film writing personal. I like putting myself in the ‘work’. I guess that’s what this post is about. In a roundabout way I’m celebrating After Life and what it did for me, what its been doing for me since. I wanted to share that.

See the film, if you can; its wonderful. And I invite you to ponder what you would choose. What memory would you live in – at the expense of all others – if you could?

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