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and Terry Sanders

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life has a premise so Hollywoodish that it might even resonate with fans of The Sixth Sense, the weepie that became a summer hit by impersonating a horror movie. The Japanese writer-director’s second fiction feature depicts one week at the blandly institutional, somewhat shabby processing center for heaven, where each new arrival must choose the one and only memory that he or she will take into the world beyond. Kore-eda’s agenda, however, is not remotely theological. In fact, the film shares the themes of his previous masterpiece, Maborosi: loss, memory, and the meaning of life as defined arbitrarily by death.

After Life is every bit as good as its dazzling predecessor, but considerably less austere. It’s warmer and more humorous, and it toys fruitfully with elements derived from the director’s background in documentary filmmaking. Of the 22 people processed during the week the movie depicts, 10 are nonactors Kore-eda discovered while filming the reminiscences of more than 500 people from various walks of life. Deeply affected as a child by watching his grandfather succumb to Alzheimer’s disease, the filmmaker is fascinated by the role of remembrance. (His most recent documentary is about a man who, because of medical negligence, has absolutely no short-term memory.) “As a child,” Kore-eda has said, “I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died.”

The first part of the film integrates dialogue scripted by Kore-eda, speeches improvised by the actors, and actual recollections of the nonactors. Later, when the staff begins to reconstruct and film the prized moments their dead clients will remember forever, After Life turns into an affectionate, playful (and quite funny) tribute to low-tech movie magic. Both memories and images are shifting and evanescent, the director suggests, but celluloid and videotape are, well, eternal.

The process begins with the center’s caseworkers calmly and compassionately explaining the circumstances and requirements to the latest arrivals. Most of the newly dead are quick to choose the memory they want to keep forever, and some are even a bit hasty. After a teenage girl picks a day at Tokyo Disneyland, trainee counselor Shiori Satonaka (Erika Oda) gently informs her that many girls choose the same thing. (The fact that some of the dead are very young is presented without any Hollywood-style sentimentality.)

There are some problem cases, including a punky kid who might want to select a dream rather than a genuine memory and Ichiro Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), an old man who believes his life was too empty to remember. Watanabe is assigned to a young caseworker named Arata (Takaski Mochizuki), and it’s gradually revealed that the two men have a lot in common. Indeed, their connection proves poignant. Like its predecessor, After Life sneaks up on you. After some 90 minutes of exquisite lighting, elegant compositions, and dry wit, the story delivers an emotional punch as unexpected and deeply haunting as Maborosi’s.

From Heaven Can Wait and A Matter of Life and Death in the ’40s to Wings of Desire in the ’80s, the intersection of life and afterlife has been a popular cinematic location. After Life’s original title was Wandafuru Raifu, a Japanization of “wonderful life” and an evocation of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, another picture snapped at the same corner. It’s not surprising that, unlike such movies, Kore-eda’s film doesn’t advance a Christian notion of heaven. In fact, the director has said that he “deliberately stripped Japanese (or any other) religious connotations from the film.” Still, there is something distinctively Japanese about it.

Like the caseworkers who initially guide their new clients—and the viewers—After Life is delicate, modest, and humane. There’s no bluster, no overstatement, no great reward or terrible punishment. The processing center is a simple place, with only the quality of illumination (conveyed with natural light by cinematographers Yutaka Yamazaki and Masayoshi Sukita) suggesting a celestial purpose. Like traditional Japanese art, the film celebrates the beauty in the humble and everyday. It’s not really about the grand promises of another world, but about the small yet profound pleasures of this one.

The essential thesis of the acutely unpleasant but less than acute Cabaret Balkan is that the residents of what’s left of Yugoslavia are dangerously deranged. Given that its original title, The Powder Keg, is a venerable epithet for the Balkan region, the movie seems to be suggesting that the inhumanity it depicts is a result not of recent events but of a chronic condition. That’s an insulting notion, but one that apparently has some currency in director Goran Paskaljevic’s former homeland: This grisly comedy broke box-office records in both Sarajevo and Belgrade.

The film is set in the latter city during a single night. The events are introduced by a leering performer in the eponymous cabaret, who sets the mood by announcing, “Tonight I’m going to fuck with you.” What follows is a series of loosely linked episodes in each of which someone does indeed fuck with someone else: A kid in a car harasses a female pedestrian, only to smash into another car, whose driver chases the kid to his family’s apartment, which the chaser exuberantly trashes. Two friends spar together, but the boxing becomes brutal during a string of revelations that begins when one reveals that he screwed the other’s wife. A bus rider who’s angry that the driver’s not ready to leave terrorizes the other passengers, and a woman who escapes the bus is then attacked by her boyfriend for provoking the hijacker. (Women are only victims or bystanders in this film’s cruel cosmology.) No outcome is too garishly violent for Paskaljevic: In one scene, an ignorant mob casually crucifies a small-time thief; in another, an attempted rape ends with a grenade blast.

“The Balkans are the asshole of the world. And this place is the hemorrhoid on the asshole of the world,” remarks one character, and the director stages more than enough bloody, nihilistic incidents to support this contention. Based on a play by Dejan Dukovski, the film was actually shot on the streets of Belgrade (before NATO bombardments began). Still, it has an air of contrivance to it. The Paris-based Paskaljevic’s previous effort, Someone Else’s America, was set in Brooklyn but shot on sets in Hamburg, and both films are essentially theatrical. Timely as it is, Cabaret Balkan plays more like theater of cruelty than news from the front.

Violence and absurdity are frequent companions in the films of another Yugoslavian-exile director, Emir Kusturica, whose Black Cat, White Cat is due here imminently, and three of Cabaret Balkan’s stars—Miki Manojlovic, Lazar Ristovski, and Mirjana Jokovic—also had central roles in Kusturica’s Underground. (Kusturica and Paskaljovic are not pals, but their differences aren’t political.) But where Underground was deadly serious farce, Cabaret Balkan is merely buffoonery with exceptionally bloody punch lines. One of the film’s episodes ends with two antagonists asking each other, “Why?” Those who endure this distinctively creepy movie might well decide that Paskaljevic owes them some sort of answer.

Saving Private Ryan star Tom Hanks “presents” Return With Honor, and some of this documentary about U.S. POWs during the Vietnam “conflict” does seem designed to extend the stature of America’s Good War to its subsequent bad one. Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders’ film opens with shots of swirling clouds (an unfortunate echo of Triumph of the Will) and a capsule history of the American troop buildup in Vietnam that quickly misstates the significance of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Grit your teeth through this whitewash, however, and things get better. The bulk of the film focuses not on politics—at least not directly—but on the stamina, ingenuity, and sheer cussedness of nearly 500 Americans who survived up to eight-and-a-half years in North Vietnamese prisons.

It’s a powerful story, told mostly by the men who lived it. Those include such minor celebrities as Jeremiah Denton, James Stockdale, current U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Douglas “Pete” Peterson, and U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate and self-appointed National Airport czar. Their reminiscences are supplemented by comments from some of the women they left at home, as well as never-before-seen footage from the Vietnamese government’s archives, but the former prisoners’ comments constitute the bulk of the film. If their remarks aren’t as compellingly weird as the Vietnam POW testimony of Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, they’re vivid nonetheless.

These men were mostly Air Force and Navy aviators, possessed of the “right stuff” and capable of enduring torture that drove many of them to contemplate or even attempt suicide. Intent to Return With Honor, they refused early release, even when that decision guaranteed not merely continued but actually intensified torture. That torture was both barbaric and pointless, since there was little these pilots could reveal even if they agreed to talk. Stockdale says that his interrogators told him that the war would be won on the streets of New York, so the Vietnamese penchant for parading broken POWs before the international media was actually counterproductive. The Vietnamese wanted to prove themselves better than the Americans, but they couldn’t resist lowering themselves to the level of their Western invaders—a point the film makes only implicitly, by noting that the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” jail that held U.S. prisoners was originally built by the French for Vietnamese captives.

Mock and Sanders previously worked together on the half-good Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, which was considerably more disinterested than Return With Honor. Their new film was “made possible through a grant from the Boeing-McDonnell Foundation to the Association of Graduates, U.S. Air Force Academy,” which explains the triumphant aerial footage and occasional shots of contemporary USAF trainees. Refusing this money and making an autonomous documentary would have been the honorable thing to do. CP