Sundance 2021: In Earth I Was a Simple Man, John and the Hole | Festivals and awards

If Wheatley cribbles in Tarkovsky, Christopher Makoto Yogi is strongly influenced by other masters in his feature film “I was a simple man” an elegiac drama that echoes Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Yasujiro Ozu in its look at man’s last days on this Earth. Cinematographer Eunsoo Cho produces some pretty shots of the Hawaiian landscape, and Yogi has some interesting things to say about the dying process, but his film is too often languid as it reaches depth. It’s a near failure, an easy work to admire in terms of narrative ambition and compassionate craftsmanship, but it further proves how difficult this kind of dark cinema can be to pull off well.

Masao (Steve Iwamoto) is an American of Japanese descent living in Hawaii, where he is relatively remote from the network, withdrawn from his family on the mainland, and with few resources. He is diagnosed with mortality, and Yogi’s film unfolds like a meditation on how ghosts can haunt us even before we die. Masao’s wife (Constance Wu), long deceased, comes to him as if to accompany him to the other side, and Yogi’s story goes back to key events in the man’s life, but this is not your typical death melodrama. What will we think about when we die? What will we feel? Which faces will haunt us last?

Yogi clearly sees death as a natural process, presenting the last days of Masao as a kind of lyrical and spiritual communion with the whole history of his milieu. The film travels back and forth in time, presenting long shots of the world around Masao, almost as if returning to its natural form. There is a deep empathy in Yogi’s work which is admirable, but there is also too often a sense of personal importance that makes the film feel like it is meandering instead of finding deeper meaning. It takes fine tuning of tone to make a film like this register as more than a styling experiment. There is poetry here, but there are also long sections that seem hollow.

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