The rigorously contained and contemplative nature that struck viewers of Christopher Makoto Yogi’s first feature film, August at Akiko, in 2018, remains the distinctive feature of his new film I was a simple man. Based on a story of an aging man as he willingly plunges into nothingness, the film is defined by his discipline and a style that could be described as austere lush. It is a specialized and refined cinema which will be warmly embraced by aesthetes.
The film premiered Friday in the lineup of the Sundance Film Festival’s American Drama Competition.
Yogi’s cinema is built on blocks of strong compositions, mostly static, and an ambiance in which the serene beauty of the Hawaiian setting is pervaded by choppy winds, insistent music, relentless westernization and disturbing portents of mortality. A calm acceptance of the inevitable leads to a quiet battle with tight fear and the ever-growing specter of morality. We all know how it ends, but you can define yourself by the way you do it.
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Yogi refrains from saying a lot of things, so getting into the film is a matter of sorting out yourself; discreet has only just begun to describe the dramatic content of the story. The area around his home in northern Oahu appears to be essentially undisturbed by the gentrification of the state, and there is initially a sense of constant calm that allows the sights and sounds of threats to a serene existence to become more pronounced than they might otherwise.
Masao (Steve Iwamoto) is a handsome man with a ponytail and a white mustache. A man of few words, he now performs minimal tasks at best. When he comes to pick up his son, they talk about his late mother, who died young, and when the family comes to celebrate a birthday, they stay all day. It is an uneventful event.
But although nothing in particular is happening, the prevailing mood is worrying. A full moon is accompanied by choppy winds, water noises, and general unease, a feeling made worse by Masao’s worried and nervous manner. Bad omens are quickly justified when doctors confirm that the man is seriously ill, prompting him to withdraw almost entirely.
Assuming the central scene, then, are unannounced “visits” from key people to Masao’s past, stretching back as far as man’s idyllic youth to pre-state times. Nostalgia bleeding in sorrow dominates the man’s head and heart, as Yogi lets down Masao in various moments and memories of his past with his wife, whose death at a very young age also helped distance himself from their children.
Although Yogi is too rigorous a filmmaker to indulge in anything akin to conventional nostalgia, he can’t help but convey an implicit distaste for the relentless Americanization of the islands. As the film revisits moments from the family’s past stretching back decades, there is more than a whiff of time gone by and paradise lost; the photographic emphasis on skyscrapers and other modern objects is not accidental.
Masao’s long separation from his own family is somewhat disturbing and perhaps insufficiently addressed; perhaps naturally irascible in old age, this is a man who had checked extensively on his own family years earlier. There has to be a lot more to this story than what we see in the movie, and yet we’re left with nothing but crumbs when it comes to tackling something like the full story. A Provocative Look is an interesting painting of the father made by his daughter as she watched over death.
The drama does not reveal itself in a normal way and finds its own way, most often successfully, to give weight to everyday events – and sometimes bordering on boredom. In this regard, he follows the lead of some of his favorite Asian art house directors – Naomi Kawase, Tsai Ming-liang and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul – whose slow, studied styles are antithetical to Western standards of commercial cinema (both Yogi films are so far on the Short Side). It also uses the weather and music to indicate the brutal turbulence of what’s going on beneath the characters’ mostly reasonable exteriors.
Yogi’s style and concerns as expressed here remain rigorously aestheticized for a very particular audience, but there are hints of an opening to a wider audience. The director is perfectly in control of what he does, so it will be worth following up to see if he is content to remain a figure of specialist interest or if he is trying to broaden his palette and audience.