Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Strand Releasing releases the film in select theaters on Friday, November 19.
“Dying isn’t simple, is it?” Those words repeat through Christopher Makoto Yogi’s lush and spellbinding “I Was a Simple Man,” calling frequent attention to the film’s title, and to its curious use of the past tense. It frames the cancer-stricken final days of Masao Matsuoshi (Steve Iwamoto) in the context of someone who’s only thinking about the mess of people caught in his web now that his body has run out of filament and they’re all forever enmeshed.
Not that Yogi holds that against him. Layering the spectral hush of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” over the elegiac domesticity of a late Ozu film like “An Autumn Afternoon,” the Honolulu-born filmmaker’s singularly Hawaiian second feature is haunted and haunting in equal measure — a reckoning pitched at the volume of a whisper. Just because people don’t stay behind doesn’t mean they ever leave.
“I Was a Simple Man” emphasizes that sense of impermanence from the moment it starts, as the aging Masao (frailer than his slick gray ponytail might suggest) and a friend stand inside an elevated parking complex and stare at the high-rise condos that have sprouted out of downtown O’ahu to block their view of the green hills beyond. It might seem like a mournful sight at first blush — the kind of table-setting meant to produce the performative reverence that indigenous or local stories often trigger in tourists — but there’s nothing especially sacred happening here. For one thing, Masao’s friend is in the middle of telling him a story about a guy who tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head, only for the bullet to pinball around his skull and bounce out his eye socket with minimal damage (“Maybe we don’t deserve to go so easily,” he chuckles). For another, Masao is only there to ask for money.
And yet, there’s a palpably sacred, even animistic charge to this and so many of the shots in “I Was a Simple Man,” as the compositions of both the image and the sound design give equal priority to their human subjects and the environments around them. The effect is paradoxically tactile and two-dimensional, as people are flattened into the lushness of a glade and ghosts materialize under a tree as casually as moonlight until the distinction starts to fuzz between a space and its memory. A cough folds into a rainstorm like thunderclaps. At one point, Masao’s dog runs out of the house where the old man is bedridden and down into a grove where the teenage Masao is sharing a book with the (kind of) psychic Chinese-American girl who will — to the great consternation of his fiercely Japanese parents — later become his wife.
For Masao, an island of a man whose surviving family lives on the mainland, the present-ness of the past is only coming into view now that he no longer has much of a mortal future before him. Soon after receiving his terminal diagnosis, he’s visited by the spirit of his late wife Grace (a phantom-quiet Constance Wu, whose ethereal performance effectively plays against her modern screen persona). “Mom’s been coming by,” Masao confides to his troubled son one afternoon. “She told me they’re all returning. Why now?”
The answer seems obvious to everyone but him: The obake have come to help Masao prepare for death. It isn’t as simple as he thought. The terms of that readiness are oblique, but they don’t bear any resemblance to the clean expressions of closure that a more commercial version of this story might find satisfying. While Imamoto’s first lead performance (after making his debut appearance in Yogi’s “August at Akiko’s”) is heartrending and humane for its vivid sense of fear, old Masao is an essentially passive character; he receives people into his home — both the living and the less so — and grows more aware of the various ways they’ve suffused themselves into the island and his memory, or into the island through his memory.
But Masao wasn’t always so attuned to such things, and “I Was a Simple Man” seamlessly glides into a higher gear as it sieves back through time and starts introducing younger versions of its character into the movie like the rounds of a song. “Adult Masao” (Tim Chiou) is handsome but quick to anger and seems distanced from his family even though he still lives with some of them. He borrows his own children from his in-laws and goes out of his way to get into fights at the local bar. Death is something that Westerners often tend to process through denial, and the difficulty Masao has in coping with the loss of his young wife — who passes on the same 1959 night that Hawaii is hooked into the United States — could be construed as the most poignantly American thing about him.
That on-the-nose touch is an outlier in a film that soaks in the unique spirit of O’ahu without reducing its characters to empty signifiers of colonialism; “I Was a Simple Man” only grows more intimately entwined with Masao’s remembrances of things past as it reaches back into the post-war period, and its lucid commentary on the commercialization of Hawaii’s beauty is borne out through a personal story of otherness and outsiders that’s reflected by Masao’s estrangement from his own family’s unyielding Japaneseness. “The 20th century is a fast century” Grace says, and the speed of those times only deepens the sense of rootlessness that Masao inherited from his parents; the same rootlessness that made him feel so unmoored when his parents went back to Japan, and quick to rot once his wife wasn’t there to help him build a home.
That disconnect spins along and gets paid forward as well, as members of Masao’s extended family start to wonder why they should care for him when he didn’t care for them. But, Yogi’s film finds that these people have been there for each other in their own ways over the years, if often only in waiting. They’ve been transmuted into stories and memories — not all of them good, and none of them particularly sentimental — only to come back to Masao through the red glow of Eunsoo Cho’s dreamy cinematography and Alex Zhang Hungtai’s elemental score. Some of the most enticing scenes invite us to imagine the similar effect that Masao’s afterimage might have on future generations (particularly his grandson), and how even the faint shade of a semi-distant family member can help divine the waters that all of us join midstream.
If “I Was a Simple Man” is mournful of the ways that O’ahu has become estranged from itself over the years — and occasionally even moribund, as the film’s gentle death grip only grows tighter as Masao gets closer to giving up the ghost — it doesn’t feel the need to take cheap shots at tourists or scowl at skyscrapers. Yogi is less concerned with what’s been lost than he is with what remains and how, and even the ways in which Masao is able to reconcile with his former selves resonate with the understanding that some things cannot be paved over. “This is not the end,” Grace soothes. “Now we become everything.” Dying isn’t simple, but we all figure out how to do it when the time comes.
“I Was a Simple Man” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.