Mortality has been front of mind for many over the past year and a half. A beautiful, contemplative film, I Was a Simple Man is the story of Masao (first-time actor Steve Iwamoto), an elderly Hawaiian facing his death who prepares by revisiting his past. Director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s ode to his home is deeply introspective, a portrait of a character whose impassive face and manner belie a complex inner world. Early scenes elucidate the Americanization of Hawai’i over the course of Masao’s life; contrast the lush, vivid memories of his youth with the loud, highway-scarred landscape his children and grandchildren traverse to visit him in his old age. Soon after Masao learns he is gravely ill, his long-dead wife Grace (Constance Wu) appears at his gate, a beautiful memory manifesting as a ghost.
One of the film’s strongest aspects is its refusal to put a pin in the fluidity of human emotion; it understands that grief isn’t always external, and rarely linear. Instead, Masao’s enormous grief causes time to collapse in on itself. He spends his life after Grace’s premature death retreating from his family and living in his own head, then that past finally merges with the present with the arrival of her ghost to usher him to the afterlife. Yogi’s Bressonian use of mostly nonprofessional actors (particularly native Hawaiians; casting director Akemi Bischoff spoke about her desire to “to bring in new faces and real people of Hawaii, not so much actors”) and frequent references to Hawaiian history bring a sense of naturalism to the otherworldly proceedings. I Was a Simple Man will strike a chord with fans of Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weeraseethakul, but also with anyone who yearns for some cinematic catharsis.
I Was a Simple Man plays as part of BAMCinemaFest through June 29.