At a run-down way station in a nondenominational afterlife, the recently deceased are told by a small group of case workers that each has three days to choose exactly one memory from his or her life to take into eternity. The staff then works with them to re-create those memories using rickety low-budget props on a shabby soundstage, and then the memories are filmed. Once each client watches their film in a screening room, they're allowed to carry on into the after life with their one memory.
This highly original concept plays out gently amongst a cast of soft and appealing faces. With professional actors as the case workers – all of whom have their own reasons for remaining in this limbo – and a mixture of professionals and amateurs playing the newly dead, many of them giving unscripted interviews as they talk about their pasts, writer/director Kore-eda (whose first feature, Maborosi, had a much more formal visual style, although it too was a meditation on death) crafts a slow-moving but incredibly affecting look at the beauty of memory and the value of a human life. Each one of the clients has his or her own quirks, some hilarious and some heartbreaking. The case workers too are developed into full, rich characters with complexities of their own.
After Life – its original title, Wandafuru raifu, is phonetic Japanese for "wonderful life" – is a soft, delicate film, awash in wintry hues, that leaves an indelible mark of humanity. It's easily one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. Miss it at your peril.