Death is inevitable, and yet, Christopher Makoto Yogi’s sophomore feature, I Was A Simple Man, presented at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, is about an elderly man transitioning to eternal life. At the very heart of it, Yogi’s movie is a slow-burn ghost story that deals with the complexities of family estrangement, death, and isolation. It speaks volumes of how one decision can affect the ones in your family for many years. I Was A Simple Man is gentle, restful, and describes how difficult death can be when entering eternal life. There’s so much emotion, anger and sorrow, that the characters express in the movie, and ultimately, the movie lingers onto the beautiful and modest work of Yogi.
When Masao’s (Steve Iwamoto) illness advances, his dead wife Grace (Constance Wu), who died in 1959, appears to take care of him. After Grace’s death, he leaves his three children to be raised by his aunt and begins smoking and drinking, eventually leading his children to resent him. Masao lives alone with his dog Mako in an isolated home where his children visit him infrequently. He ignores his doctor’s advice and continues to drink and smoke, and accepts that death is on his way. His daughter, Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) takes care of him while she begs her other siblings to come and join her. Masao’s children want nothing to do with him, and so Kati’s son Gavin (Kanoa Goo) takes care of him. Throughout Masao’s journey, Grace’s ghost sits beside him and slowly, his health rapidly declines.
Masao and Grace’s romantic love life is splattered throughout the movie, highlighting their blossoming relationship and Masao’s father’s disapproval of Grace. I Was A Simple Man also shows a younger Masao, played by Tim Chiou, and how he dealt with Grace’s death. How Masao deals with his internal conflict, that if he were to raise his kids alone, he would ruin their lives. His path into alcoholism and the estrangement was due to this decision that led him to isolate from his family. Masao lives alone in the world and he died alone, except only that Grace’s ghost was by his side to help him. The flashbacks are meant to understand why Masao is the way he is, and it expresses the kind of vulnerability and responsibility that he faced during his youth.
Eunsoo Cho’s cinematography is worth noting on how beautifully he captures Hawaii. The beauty of the island lingers in every shot and focuses on how unquestionably breathtaking it is. Cho captures the emotional and physical beauty of Masao and Grace, especially the latter, which Wu performs gracefully. The cinematography of the landscapes brings Hawaii to life and every scene is lyrical and Cho lets the shots speak for themselves. There is nothing about I Was A Simple Man that is at fault and the biggest factor that makes this movie’s cinematography enhances the visual imagery.
Wu’s performance as Masao’s dead wife, who stays by his bedside like a ghost vigil, is gracefully done. This ghostly performance is humane and charming, assuming the role of the caregiver as Masao transitions to eternal life. The emotional layers of Grace peel off through their memories and flashbacks, and it is so meditative to watch Wu perform this supernatural, alluring figure that helps Masao as his health declines.
I Was A Simple Man is layered and reveals a lot more as the movie progresses, and there is so much to unpack. The main themes of estrangement, family and death are the kind of compelling themes that Yogi portrays within this reality and the hereafter. However, at times, it does feel as though the movie’s pacing is slow and that is the main factor that weighs I Was A Simple Man down. The breathtaking cinematography and the narrative are the main highs of this narrative feature. The personal tragedy of Masao is, perhaps, a lesson, and this recurring theme of loneliness during the time of death can be broken down into so many other factors. Hopefully, the audience appreciates and understands the importance of family and accepts the beauty of the process of death.