Set on the trench that divides waking reality from the subconscious, director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s moody sophomore effort “I Was a Simple Man” achieves the narrative fluidity of dreams in a multigenerational ghost tale that conflates Hawaii’s recent history with one man’s burdensome life—both in irrevocable transition.
Faced with the twilight of his mortal stay, elderly Masao (Steve Iwamoto), the child of Japanese immigrants in rural O‘ahu, Hawaii, begins to experience visits from the great beyond. Whether these are completely the consequence of illness or an actual spiritual ambush makes no difference. Yogi’s timeline to exhibit what brought Masao to this point, alone in the home once populated by his wife and children, is not a straight chronological line but a circular excursion. The director’s approach recalls the earthly dreamscapes of Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s oeuvre, unbound by easy rationalizations.
The meetings are vivid passages intermingled with droplets of the fiction’s present, not the other way around. What this means is that we ultimately spend more time, or so it seems, in the segments that are incorporeal. As Masao lies in bed sick, we are walked through scenes integral in shaping his fate and those around him. First, his late wife Grace (Constance Wu in a nearly silent pensive role) comes to comfort him, but as the layers stack up, we enter and exit their shared story at different times periods.
Soundtracked with the cacophony of nature, “I Was a Simple Man” is leisurely paced, and could perhaps get to the preternatural stuff sooner (the first act before Masao needs 24/7 care is a nice but expansive slice of life set up). But once the plot’s loose mechanics are, we understand that Masao is just the trunk of the tree; some roots stem from him into the past and branches that look upward to the future. Those before him watered him with their trauma and longings, and he, in turn, did the same, through his choices, for his descendants. Yogi makes an actual ancient tree the symbolic center of several key sequences.
As we travel through the twentieth century through Masao’s reassessed memories, we are confronted with a younger version of him (Tim Chiou), the one who decided not to keep their kids after Grace’s passing. That breakage in their relationship means, that in old age, they are absent from his bedside like he was for most of their lives. In the softly lit seaside scene, he cannot explain to his daughter Kati why they can’t stay with him. He feared being unable to fulfill that role. An ethereal quality colors some cinematographer Eunsoo Cho’s frames in those remembrances, but there’s never a sharp visual distinction separating those instances from the bed-ridden moments, likely by design.
About halfway through, “I Was a Simple Man” transfers its focus to Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai), the only one of Masao’s children to step up and care for him, and eventually to her son, Masao’s grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo), a young man who’s only known the Hawaii of the present, of concrete jungles and the American identity—perhaps standing for the director’s own vantage point. Among the film’s many inspired elements, the ensemble cast earns considerable praise for adapting to its atmospheric flow.
Later, pushing further back, Yogi introduces a teenage Masao (Kyle Kosaki) and Grace (Boonyanudh Jiyarom) dealing with his Japanese family’s opposition to him dating someone of Chinese descent. Back then, they wanted to name their kids traditional Japanese or Chinese words, but when the moment came, they opted for giving them English-languages ones to assimilate.
Over the course of this subtly heady ride, Yogi parallels between the changes Hawaiian, both culturally and its topography, underwent since American statehood and how that affected the inner worlds of those already living there. To say there’s a compelling sense of place in “I Was a Simple Man” would be an understanding. Yogi makes sure that every so often, the screen is occupied solely by unencumbered nature. The connection to the land itself, and what it all means in terms of the baggage we are born with and that we accumulate in our lifetime, is metaphysically riveting if one gets past the sometimes overly elaborate presentation.
When Iwamoto’s Masao speaks of the before time, he refers both to the years when Hawaii existed mostly unattained, a beautifully uncomplicated landscape with greenery aplenty. But also to days when he was blissfully ignorant of whom he would become, of how the plans he had would expire or how the things he thought he’d never do come to pass. Maybe the reason he failed to turn himself into the man of his early dreams were wrongdoings for which he alone is to blame, or perhaps his destiny is the result of his emotional shortcomings fed to him through an umbilical cord that extends far beyond his mother.
Now in his final hours, he can see the full picture in this atemporal Yogi constructed. Masao was blind to it in youth, but like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ classic tale, apparitions have shown him the totality of his journey, from different angles and uncomfortable truths. Knowing that some of his errors were predetermined or triggered by outside factors, there’s some peace. As this dance of realities colliding with each other continues, perhaps death means going back to a simpler, unbothered plane. [A-]