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JUNE 3 & 4

The best film showing in Washington this week certainly isn’t the megahyped turkey The Phantom Menace, but it might be Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s outstanding After Life, playing at two relatively unpublicized screenings at the Hirshhorn. After Life actually has a surprisingly Hollywoodish premise: It 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. The center’s staffers (who, it’s gradually revealed, have stories of their own to tell) then make a film of that prized moment. The scenario draws on Kore-eda’s background in documentaries: His characters’s memories are a mix of real and fictionalized reminiscences, recounted by both professional actors and some of the 500 people the director interviewed while developing the script. Although this film is more playful in both tone and structure than Kore-eda’s austerely stunning Maborosi, both explore similar themes: loss, memory, the meaning of life as defined arbitrarily by death. And like its predecessor, After Life sneaks up on you. After nearly two hours of exquisite lighting, elegant compositions, and dry wit, the story delivers an emotional punch as unexpected and profoundly haunting as Maborosi’s. Theologians who note that there’s no hell in Kore-eda’s afterlife should be aware that this delicate, luminous film has been damned to an American remake that is almost certain to be infernal. At 8 p.m. Thursday, June 3, and Friday, June 4, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 7th & Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-2700. (Mark Jenkins)