Sundance 2021: I Was a Simple Man – Movie Review

“Dying isn’t simple, is it?” It’s that question which is not only posed multiple times but vibrates throughout I Was a Simple Man, a hushed, contemplative study of an elderly man’s days in Oahu (an Island in Hawaii). Yet it’s also such a question that sounds less rhetorical, less weary, and more loaded with anxious uncertainty each time it’s said, never fully settling with an easy answer. It’s a film that considers the troubling weight of impending death on the victim — as failing health, unsteady memory, and drifting ghosts of the past combine to coolly disorienting effect — as well as the burdened and conflicted family wrestles with it. Yet there’s a serene peace amidst the trauma: At it’s most lyrical, the mortality doesn’t seem like a threat or a ticking clock, so much as a breeze that you slowly bend or float away with. And it also probably helps to be surrounded by the vividly green scenery and natural, oceanic soundscapes of Oahu, which also renders I Was a Simple Man to function as a loving ode towards.

Set in the divide between the trenches of waking reality and the subconscious, Honolulu-born writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi has his sophomore feature ambitiously merge multiple periods and points of view, but it’s the elderly Masao (Steve Iwamoto), the child of Japanese immigrants, who we begin with, as he begins to experience visits from the great beyond. Whether they are the consequences of illness or an actual spiritual ambush makes no difference, though. (Much in the vein of Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yogi’s film is one unbound by easy rationalizations.)

The film directly opens with Masao and one of his good friends standing in a parking garage, gazing out upon the city, reminiscing when it once was “all beautiful green.” As their conversation progresses, Yogi and cinematographer Eunsoo Cho’s camera slowly pushes in until it’s out amongst the city, with the men’s conversation now canceled out by the loud smacks of industrial progress. It’s the film’s first and most direct illustration of a world leaving Masao behind. Thankfully for him though, his longtime home, on the island’s more rural North Shore, aligns more with his life’s slow rhythms, as his begins to physically deteriorate.

Masao quickly becomes bed-ridden, and as a widower for over half his life, his begins to rely on his adult children Kai (Chanel Akiko Hirai) and Mark (Nelson Lee) to attend to him. Yet it becomes clear that their help is more of a sense of obligation than full affection; a second son lives in another state, and seems quite indifferent to his father’s condition. The history of this familial frostiness is gradually unpacked when Masao is visited by the ghost of his late wife Grace (Constance Wu, in a largely silent, pensive role), whose appearance begins the progression into something more spiritual. Nothing has ever been the same since her untimely passing, but as more flashbacks begin to show different points in his youth, it becomes clear that things were never really great. I Was a Simple Man most poignantly depicts how age and memory can soften or distort the angles of troubled relationships — sometimes to delusional effect, other times with heavy underlying truth.

The closer Masao gets to his end, the more the film gives itself over to the past, jumping across decades to look at the various unresolved patches of trauma in his life. Chief among them being his relationship to Grace — how that put a rift with his parents who were unaccepting of him dating a Chinese woman — his decline into alcoholism and how grief pushed him away from his kids. Yogi tells his melancholic story with an elegant shorthand, leaving the viewer to grapple with the structure and careful assemblage. The tale of Masao and Grace’s imperfect marriage, on the other hand, is told in the quiet, tactile rapport between Iwamoto and Wu: With little dialogue, the latter is required to channel a lifetime’s worth of regret, resentment and enduring love entirely through his expressions and bodily prowess.

In fact, all of Yogi’s actors work in subtle but expressive ways, all to congeal with his natural command of atmosphere and place: This is a film where rainfall has just as much a prominent voice as any human does. A spare, wistful score by Alex Zhang Hungtai and Pierre Guerineau frequently melts into the chattering, whistling sound design of the island itself: Where the work of man and earth are infused into one piece. If I Was a Simple Man is a ghost story of sorts, it’s a very grounded one: As we pick through the pieces of our living years, we may begin to wonder if death truly means to go back to a simpler, calmer state. Poetically ruminative and attuned to an intimate environment, I Was a Simple Man reflects on memory and death with a haunting Hawaiian breeze and the delicacy of a whisper.

Grade: B

I Was a Simple Man premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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