After Life (Wandafuru raifu, Japan 1998)

A recently deceased man arrives at the way station in After Life

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s second fiction feature came after he had returned to his documentary roots to make the feature length TV documentary Without Memory in 1996. This featured a study of a man with a condition which prevented him from creating any new memories. It was caused by a failure of hospital procedures following an operation (actually a decision to withhold medication for budgetary reasons) and Kore-eda and his crew became involved with the man and his family in a form of participatory documentary. See this Senses of Cinema outline (with further links). The 84 minute documentary is available on YouTube with English subs and an introduction in English. Taking a camera crew to visit this young family man, Kore-eda discovered that each time they met him, Sekine Hiroshi would have no memory of their previous visit. By making the film, Kore-eda was in effect providing a form of memory for him. From a Guardian piece from 1999 by Jonathan Romney we learn that, from the age of six, Kore-eda had experienced the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on his grandfather and how as a high school student he had fashioned a script based on Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) in which he would shrink himself and enter his grandfather’s brain to trigger his lost memories. It’s worth noting that the impetus to make a documentary about memory loss is prompted by a personal experience and a desire to expose a social injustice caused by government failure. These two starting points are common for many of Kore-eda’s later films.

The ‘staff’ of the way station pose before a backdrop used in the films they will help to get made

After Life was a surprise hit in North America and other international markets, possibly because of its presentation of a recognisable genre scenario – i.e. compared to most other Kore-eda films it seems immediately ‘universal’ as a narrative (and because it seems to refer back to Hollywood titles- the Japanese title is ‘Wonderful Life’). The film presents a ‘speculative fiction’ in which whenever somebody dies they find themselves in a ‘way station’, a kind of purgatory in the Roman Catholic sense, but without the connotations of suffering and usually confined to just seven days. Although there is no suffering as such, there is a task with deadlines. Each person is interviewed by one or two bureaucrats who require the newly deceased to select one important memory from their life. This is a memory that they will take with them into the after life. It will be their only memory, all others will be erased. They arrive on a Monday and they must decide by Wednesday. The staff will then produce a short film of the memory and these films are shown on the Saturday before the deceased are finally sent on their way. As reported in the Romney piece, Kore-eda explained that After Life is different from similar films in the West because there is no sense of ‘judgement’ at the time of death in Japan. This led to Kore-eda to find several non-professional actors and to treat them like documentary subjects. So in some cases the newly deceased characters are speaking for ‘real’ about their memories.

Kore-eda locates his way station in an old, nondescript institutional building, perhaps a school, on the outskirts of a city. The first arrivals walk up the steps, out of the mist and into the hallway where they are registered and asked to sit in the waiting room. I was reminded of two British films. Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the US) has a similarly bureaucratic welcome to heaven after the deceased have come up a long moving staircase. The very different and less well-known J. B. Priestley adaptation They Came to a City (1944) is not necessarily dealing with the deceased but takes a motley group of characters who climb through the mist to a gateway through which they are invited to visit a wonderful new city – a metaphor for a new (socialist) post-war world. Will they go to look? What will they think of it? Will they stay? In some ways this is linked to Kore-eda’s ideas.

One of the recently-deceased talks about her memories

While the idea of creating a film of a memory clearly derives from the Without Memory documentary, there are several other ideas being addressed in After Life. There is a limited number of characters in the cohort of the newly deceased (22) and they range from young to old, with a wide range of backgrounds, personalities and attitudes. What the narrative is really ‘about’ is a teasing out of what it means to be human or what it means to have ‘lived’. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this film without ever thinking, however fleetingly, “Which memory would I choose?”. The corollary might then be: “But whatever I choose, if that is the only memory I have for eternity, it’ll be hell!” But Kore-eda doesn’t really follow that through. What he does do, though, is to focus equally on the recently deceased and the bureaucrats who have to deal with them. I’ve termed them bureaucrats but really they are more like guides/helpers/counsellors. Eventually, you will start to wonder who these people are who carry out the interviews and organise the filming. All will be revealed if you haven’t guessed already.

Shiori (Oda Erika) is the youngest of the staff and as a trainee she tries hard to do her research into the memories that are discussed

The films that are made from the memories are interesting not just for the kinds of memories that are represented but also for the way in which the film production process is presented. A typical commercial science fiction or fantasy film would probably present these in ways which emphasised their generic qualities with special effects, music and extravagant art design. Kore-eda chooses instead to present a documentary-style glimpse of film production by a group akin to students shooting a film school studio exercise. Similarly, we get to see the ‘audience’ of the deceased and the counsellors trooping into a cinema to watch the results.

What is the overall impact of After Life? I think it very much depends on how an audience reacts to the quite personal challenges that the narrative poses and which of the characters and their thoughts about memories resonate most. There is also the parallel narrative about the bureaucrats/counsellors to consider. One outcome may be that we learn something about ourselves from seeing what happens to individuals and learning their stories. In that sense this is a deeply humanist film. I should also say that the film isn’t morbid in any way. It has sequences that are comic, some that are romantic. It might be summed up by a device in the ceiling of a corridor which uses different cut-outs in the sky-light to change the view of the sky. Some reviewers have suggested that the film is actually a study of filmmaking with Kore-eda deliberately using the juxtaposition of documentary and the artificiality of studio filmmaking to make us aware of how we engage with ideas on film and how films help us to develop memories.

This was the first of Kore-eda’s films to prompt an American remake, suggesting it has mass universal appeal. This would happen again with the later films, especially Like Father, Like Son (2013) but I’m not aware of any remakes actually emerging as yet. I realise I haven’t mentioned the performances (all good) or the crucial coming together of stories in the latter part of the film. I won’t spoil that moment but look out for the retired office worker Watanabe (Naitô Taketoshi) who can’t choose a memory, causing problems for the counsellor Mochizuki (Iura Arata) and his assistant Satonaka Shiori (Oda Erika), the young woman who seems to have a crush on him. 

Here’s an unofficial trailer for the film:

Duel in the Jungle (UK-US 1954)

This odd US poster does tell you something about the film, but doesn’t mention the stars

Talking Pictures TV has become an invaluable source of archive film material. It seems to function now like the US version of TCM, offering films, particularly British films from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, that don’t seem to appear on other channels. Some of them are also released on TPTV’s own DVD label Renown and others appear in the output of the Network DVD/Blu-ray label. Duel in the Jungle is the latest title to catch my attention on TPTV. It falls roughly into what I sometimes think of as a broad ‘Colonial Adventure’ category.

From the late 1940s and through to the early 1960s, British cinema sought to provide the declining popular cinema audience with more ‘colourful’ and ‘exotic’ films. These would utilise Technicolor and, later, widescreen formats and would be filmed on location in parts of the Empire (which formally became the Commonwealth in 1949). Location shoots in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean could be expensive and the close ties between British producers/studios and Hollywood partners meant that many such productions were in effect American ‘runaways’ or American productions utilising British cast and crews and working relationships with local agencies. Relatively few films were made totally on location and many required studio shoots back in the UK for interiors. There were also ‘Hollywood-only’ productions and these would be distinguished by much less attention to local issues and questions about the colonial relationship. Two of the most successful productions, both critically and commercially were The African Queen (UK-US 1951) and Where No Vultures Fly (UK 1951), the first a co-production and the second, one of Ealing’s African adventures. Both films were made in East Africa and both referred to historical or contemporary events (i.e. they engaged with the colonial experience in some way).

Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain and David Farrar

Duel in the Jungle is a Hollywood style genre picture made by a US director, writer and stars with a UK studio and British secondary cast and crew. Shot in Technicolor it appears to be shot in Academy but released as a 1.66:1 widescreen feature. This was a common ploy in the first full year of Hollywood widescreen. The studio is Associated British Pictures Corporation (ABPC) based at Elstree, Borehamwood for the interiors. The location shooting in this case was in South Africa and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and features footage of the Victoria Falls. Talking Pictures TV, I think, trailed this as a ‘detective story set in Africa’. That’s not a bad description, though a ‘crime adventure’ might be more accurate. Certainly there is an investigator in the form of Dana Andrews as Scott Walters a US insurance man who comes to London to check on a business man who has taken out a life policy worth $2 million. This client is Perry Henderson who, according to his brother Arthur, is in Africa. Both brothers are played by 1940s British leading man David Farrar, who by this time was primarily appearing in American films. Walters, though suspicious is about to fly back to the US when he sees a headline claiming Perry Anderson has been swept overboard in the Indian Ocean. Walters heads to South Africa to investigate. He becomes more suspicious when he realises that the ship on which Henderson had been travelling was one owned by his own company and that Marian Taylor (Jeanne Crain), the Henderson secretary, is now on board the ship. Walters who was attracted to Marian when he first saw her, decides to follow her into the interior from the East African coast. Will she lead him to Perry Henderson? Of course!

Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews are warned about the dangers

The second half of the narrative offers us views of the route supposedly to the Zambezi and the Falls, across savannah, through woods and along a river. Handsomely shot by Erwin Hillier, the main footage is probably from the Kruger National Park and other locations in South Africa/Southern Africa. It gives veteran Hollywood director George Marshall the opportunity to include the dangers of lions and stampeding elephants. Because this is an American narrative and the actual colonial territory is not identified, there is no attempt to include any kind of direct political context. The crime is connected to Henderson’s interests in diamonds (which he hoped to find on the sea-bed). There are no ‘settlers’ and no political activists among the local people as well as no issues about game conservation. Northern Rhodesia’s biggest economic asset was the ‘Copper Belt’, much further North than the falls.) There is a British colonial officer and a British-led local police force but that’s it. This does present a problem about the motivation of the only African character to be developed in any way. Vincent (Michael Mataka) is a familiar figure in British colonial melodramas and adventures. He’s the educated, English-speaking African who might appear at the centre of a narrative involving coloniser and colonised, forming a kind of bridge pulled in either direction towards his own people or towards the coloniser, acting as the ‘subaltern’ character identified by the later theorists of ‘post-colonialism’. But in this American-written script he turns from being Henderson’s right-hand man to siding with Walters, thereby risking his life. The change is needed for the narrative but not really explained in terms of the character.

David Farrar in his ‘evil squire’ mode

The Wikipedia entry on the film notes that the film was popular in the UK, earning the then healthy box office total of over £200,000. With North American and international distribution via Warner Brothers (investors in ABPC) the film must have made substantial profits. Such films constitute an important cycle in the 1950s – and they have continued to do so, in different forms, up until the present – even if the political context has changed. George Marshall (who made 89 features in total) made at least one more similar film, Beyond Mombasa (1956) which was also a UK-US production, but this time with Columbia and starring Cornel Wilde and Donna Reed. The important link between the two productions seems to have been producer Tony Owen (Donna Reed’s husband). My other interest in Duel in the Jungle (i.e. after its colonial adventure categorisation) is in David Farrar, who continues to fascinate me, though I’m not quite sure why. He is in danger in this film of falling back on his ‘villainous squire’ role from Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950). Duel in the Jungle was his second American production but he’d already played in the 1949 Gainsborough picture Diamond City set in South Africa. One of his final films was Watusi (1959), a follow up to King Solomon’s Mines. I doubt if he visited South Africa for any of these films but in 1962 he just walked away from films and settled in South Africa where he lived for the next 30 plus years until his death in 1995.

The general conclusion on Duel in the Jungle is that it was an exciting film for 1954 audiences. I think films like this are worth remembering to see how Europeans and Americans treated local people – or simply ignored them. Now we have different problems such as the habit of telling African stories with African-American or British African actors playing African characters. One last point is the use of the term ‘jungle’. ‘Jungle’ is a key word in this cycle of films and in the various dictionary definitions it refers to a place of of ‘tangled’ and overgrown vegetation which then gets transferred into more metaphorical uses such as the ‘concrete jungle’ of the city or the ‘human jungle’ of the modern world of stress and psychological struggle. It’s origins are, however, in India under British colonial administration from the 18th century onwards and the meaning is an ‘arid region or desert’ from Sanskrit (see Chambers 20th century dictionary). In other words, the meanings gradually accrued to something the British colonisers thought of as an ‘other’ place, wild and inhospitable.

Dueling pistols do appear in the film.

Here’s the trailer from the Network DVD:

Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (How I Felt When I Saw That Girl, India (Hindi) 2019)

This film was screened at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of ‘Bradford Pride’. It was introduced as the first Bollywood film to feature a lesbian relationship. That’s certainly a claim that is worth unpacking, but first I need to outline what kind of film this is. It certainly belongs in the category of mainstream Bollywood, being a Vidhu Vinod Chopra production presented by Fox Star. (It was released in February this year and I wonder what is happening to Star with the sale of Fox to Disney?) It features three stars who span the history of Hindi popular cinema from veterans Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla to Rajkummar Rao as a representative of the younger generation. But it is a début feature for writer-director Shelly Chopra Dhar. The central character, Sweety, is a young woman from the Punjab played by Anil Kapoor’s own daughter Sonam Kapoor. Ms Kapoor has had several leading roles in Hindi productions but whether she qualifies as a ‘star’ for mainstream audiences is open to debate.

These production details are important as the avowed aim of Shelly Chopra Dhar was to make a film which would present the taboo subject of a lesbian relationship not just to the urban multiplex crowd but also to the traditional audiences of small town India. As many scholars and commentators have noted, Bollywood’s biggest problem in recent years has been that split between sophisticated audiences in the Metros and the traditional concept of the ‘All India’ audiences across the country (or at least across North India). I’m not sure she has succeeded.

It’s tricky to discuss how the film was received in India. The film’s promotion seems to have tried to maintain the surprise while the impending release was already generating controversy. In 2018 the Indian Supreme Court made decisions which seem to guarantee a choice of marriage partner to all citizens, yet there are various state regulations and legislation for different religious groups. At least one IMDb ‘user’ complains about a lack of warning about the film’s content (she had taken her young girls to a screening of what she thought would be a family/romantic comedy).

Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) and Sahil (Rajkummar Rao)

The narrative begins with a family wedding in Delhi at which enough hints are dropped that Sweety has met the girl of her dreams in the form of Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, a Tamil actor making her Hindi debut). The film’s title refers to the song first used in the Anil Kapoor film 1942: A Love Story (1994) when he meets Manisha Koirala. The 1994 film was directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. I don’t know if the song title and memories of the 1994 film confused audiences but Sweety’s attraction to Kuhu must be kept secret. After the wedding, Sweety and her family return to Moga in Punjab where her father Balbir (Anil Kapoor) is the owner of a large garment factory. Meanwhile Rajkummar Rao is introduced in Delhi as Sahil, a struggling Muslim playwright whose latest play is in rehearsal. Sweety is visiting Delhi and comes into the theatre to hide as we realise later when her angry brother Babloo bursts in. Sahil feels compelled to rescue Sweety and a chase begins. I won’t spoil the narrative any further except to say that Sahil is clearly smitten with Sweety and she, unaware that he is the writer of the play she has just watched, tells him it doesn’t convey ‘real love’ which is always more ‘complicated’. This is our clue to what will follow. Sahil will go to Moga with a plan to win Sweety. We will learn more of Sweety’s backstory through flashbacks. There will be a comedy of confusion and ‘complication’ and a grand finale in which all will be revealed/resolved. In this respect the film seems traditional and straightforward. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much in noting that Sweety’s secret will be fully revealed in a public performance, so that the cinema audience will have the same revelation as the audience for the performance in the narrative. Intriguingly, the idea for the narrative is taken from P.G. Wodehouse’s 1919 novel A Damsel in Distress. The novel has twice been adapted for the stage and for the 1937 Fred Astaire-Joan Fontaine film. It was most recently staged in 2015. Once aware of this it is easy to see the narrative mechanisms at play in the Bollywood film.

A brief moment of contact between Kuhu (Regina Cassandra, left) and Sweety

As I left the screening, a group of four women in front of me were discussing the film and they seemed to agree that it picked up the pace in the second half after a slow opening. We had a few moments of dark screen where the Intermission would have been. The convention appears to still hold in Bollywood despite this film being only 120 minutes long. I’m not the target audience for the film but I doubt that it will have satisfied its intended audience, although there were some quite moving moments when a young teenage girl in the audience for Sweety’s performance is clearly affected by what she sees. I also thought it was quite clever to use the same actors for the younger Sweety in the flashbacks and as performers in the show. But there are two whopping problems. First Sonham Kapoor seems miscast. Bollywood has never bothered too much about realism but it’s difficult to take an actor in her thirties playing ten years younger. I have to agree with the many comments that she just doesn’t have the vital spark that this character needs. But perhaps that is partly because she barely gets to touch Kuhu in the film. An embrace and holding hands is more or less the limit.

Bollywood stars Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla are re-united in one of the sub-plots

The other reason why the central couple are not central is that the re-teaming of Anil Kapoor and Juhi Chawla works so well. They play out several comic scenes and at one point I was almost hoping that the narrative would switch and explore the ‘feminisation’ of the Anil Kapoor character (whose mother stopped him becoming a chef and didn’t allow him into the kitchen because it isn’t ‘man’s work’). Rajkummar Rao is not really given enough to do (see Newton (India 2017) for one of his outstanding performances). As for the other ‘casting’, of Moga as a small town outside the Metros, I think that’s another missed opportunity, especially with Balbir as such an important local business person. The ‘real’ Moga appears to be a city of 300,000 people but the film representation could be anywhere. Perhaps that’s the point.

The music and dance sequences seemed OK to me but nothing special. I don’t regret seeing the film and I did enjoy many scenes but I can’t see this as a film that will break down barriers. It promises to explore the ‘complications’ of Sweety’s love relationships but barely touches the surface. I have written about a couple of much more challenging films from Malayalam cinema (The Journey 2004) and from Hindi cinema Margarita with a Straw (2014) and there is always the classic of late parallel cinema, Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. I accept that these are three films made by ‘diasporic directors’ based in North America and that they are not mainstream cinema. In its review Bollywoodhungama.com lists several other titles and comes to more or less the same conclusions about Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga as I’ve outlined above. But it ends with the suggestion that “At the box office, its appeal will be restricted to niche urban multiplex audiences”. The review appears to have predicted correctly and after two weeks the title was declared a ‘flop’ in India (Bollywood box office analysts are brutal) even though it made 20 crore rupees in the first two weeks (around $2.86 million) in India.

Here’s a trailer (no subs) that demonstrates how Sweety’s ‘secret’ is kept.

A survey worth completing

The ‘Science and Media Museum’ in Bradford is conducting an audience survey. You likely have missed this. It does not seem to have been much publicised and I searched in vain on the Museum Webpages for it. I finally sent in an email request and received a link to the following:

NATIONAL SCIENCE AND MEDIA MUSEUM CINEMA MEMBERSHIP SURVEY

This has a fairly conventional series of questions; about attendance at Picturehouse and other cinemas: the frequency of screenings: preferences in terms of 2D/3D: preference for types of screenings: and, intriguing but also conventional questions aiming to help:

The Museum is keen to understand its visitors and what motivates them . . .

These are mostly tick boxes as well. It is rather boring and also includes questions about one’s age and the usual dubious list of what are called ‘ethnic categories’.

But there are three occasions where there are boxes for composed comments, which, with a little imagination, can be used to suggest matters about programming, titles and formats that one would appreciate. This may, perhaps, bring a little influence to the future programming.

The context for this is [as reported here] Picturehouse are ending their contract with the Museum at the end of October this year. We know three things about the Museum plans. They intend to take back the running of the three auditoriums; Pictureville, Cubby Broccoli and Imax. They have promised to bring in a filmgoers membership scheme akin to that run by Picturehouse; [ the point of the survey]. And they apparently intend to sub-contract the programming to an agency, but who or what is unknown.

At present the Museum’s two film auditoriums make the Museum one of only three venues in Leeds / Bradford that are capable of screening ‘reel’ films. And, despite the limitations of the Picturehouse programme, the venue has been one of only two that offer frequent screenings of art films, foreign language films [excepting Hindi-language cinema] and true independent productions. The other is the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds. But the latter closes for up to twelve months in January 2020 as part of the major redevelopment. If you want to see any of the Cannes Festival titles that Roy has rightly praised it is likely to depend on the programming at the Museum. Otherwise it is trains or cars to Hebden Bridge, Sheffield or Manchester.

So take the ten minutes, [it is about that], to complete the questionnaire and take every opportunity to write in favour of a varied quality programme of films.

Postscript: The link is now displaying ‘the survey is closed’.

If you have missed being able to complete the Survey you can complain to:

Email: talk@scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk