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I Was a Simple Man
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by Jay Seaver

"At and after the end."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2021: Point a camera in any random direction in Hawaii, and odds are that you're going to get a great-looking movie, and though that is not entirely the direction Christopher Makoto Yogi takes with "I Was a Simple Man", it is a major part of what makes the film work. Not so much the scenery, but the star, who often seems to embody his character to the point where everything more than taking him in is (entirely welcome) elaboration on a theme.

Steve Iwamoto was likely cast for the vibe he gives off; his short list of screen credits paired with his age make one wonder if maybe he's taken up a new hobby in his retirement. He plays Masao Matsuyoshi, who may have been a troublemaker once but who is dying now, an unspecified cancer advancing quickly. It's a part that requires a certain amount of quiet presence early and quiet but pained absence later, as both the pain medication and his natural tendency to look back are going to make him less responsive to whichever family member is looking after him.

There will be several - son Mark (Nelson Lee), who is spiritual; daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko HIrai), who is practical; and grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo), who is still mostly interested in skateboarding. Unseen by any of them is Grace (Constance Wu), his wife, who died on the day Hawaii became a state. Seeing her ghost sends his mind back in time, to when they were first courting - to his parents' disappointment, as she was Chinese - to when he found himself unable to reconnect with his children without her.

That is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy of the film - that Masao effectively died with her, and though the timing of it seems meaningful, Yogi doesn't necessarily dive into the parallel, which is a bit of a shame, because there's something gripping about the central idea of how, despite having apparently never moved from the house where he and Grace lived during their short time together, he died in a different country than the one he considered home. Indeed, by choosing to live there, he arguably gave up his first homeland, as his parents would return to Japan without him. This mostly feels like convenient sign-posting, and it's the empty spaces that matter - assume the "present" is roughly Y2K, and there are 40 years left almost completely empty after Grace's death, and another 20 before without much else. Tim Chiou does a nice job of matching Iwamoto during those flashbacks - beyond resemblance, they both seem to play the same way against Constance Wu - and if Kyle Kosaki and Boonyanudh Jiyarom don't quite seem the same, it still kind of works - Masao grew with Grace, and froze without her.

It thus falls to the cast playing Masao's adult children and grandchildren to sell the effects of his inability to be a proper father, whether a son only heard on the phone from the mainland or the folks puttering around as Iwamoto is part of the scenery. It's nice work from all three, too: Nelson Lee does a nice job in showing how Mark finds himself strained as he tries to act on a connection his beliefs say should be natural, while Chanel Akiko Hirai plays the caretaker who best remembers who her father was before the tragedy (with a nice flashback featuring Alexa Bodden showing how she has strived for that connection even when he pushed her away). For Kanoa Goo's Gavin, Masao is almost an abstraction, a way for him to learn a bit more about life outside Honolulu and how life has a decay and end, which he has not yet had to face.

Yogi and cinematographer Eunsoo Cho wrap it up in a fine looking package, embracing digital brightness and sharpness to enhance the tragedy of Masao's weathered face and slumped posture. They find shadows among the bright colors and make darkness especially oppressive even before the world turns red after the eclipse prefigured in one of Grace's paintings. As the film goes on, Yogi has Masao's memories become more dreamlike, with his dog seemingly able to run into a past where, in memory, Grace tells him the future. His life, as it ends, goes from being a string of events to one thing which is linked to other lives in a way which would mystify the outside world.

The end comes, and everyone must make peace with that, even if they don't entirely forgive. Yogi could perhaps have done more with this, but he gets an awful long way on beautiful country, a lived-in face, and a uniformly impressive supporting cast.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33982&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/11/21 15:13:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2021 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2021 series, click here.

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