Without special effects, corny music or any flashy visual jiggery-pokery whatsoever, former documentary-maker Hirokazu Kore-eda's elegantly discreet drama manages to be one of the most haunting films ever made about life after death. The action unfolds in what looks like (and is, in real life) a disused school, powdered with the first winter snows. This is Limbo, a sort of dole office cum movie studio, where a group of clerical workers process the recently dead. Their task is to help each recently deceased choose one memory from their life to take with them into all eternity, a memory the will help recreate with props and jerry-rigged sets, for the celestial video records. Those who can't choose a memory, like Arata (Takashi Mochizuki), must stay on to help the new arrivals until they decide.
Kore-eda's last film, Maborosi, was concerned with a woman coming to terms with her husband's suicide, and had a blackened mournful palette to match its subject. Ironically, After Life is a sunnier, warmer movie, full of delightfully unforced performances by its largely non-professional cast, many of whom are "playing themselves" having been culled by interviews Kore-eda conducted during development. The leisurely pace leaves one unprepared for the sudden stabs of emotion and drama that eventually puncture the placid surface. All in all, it easily puts such nauseating Hollywood kitsch as What Dreams May Come to shame, and leaves one pondering its teasing central question: what moment would you choose? --Leslie Felperin