This movie sees dead people.
In fact, everyone in it is dead.
But then why is it so weirdly delightful?
The film is "After Life," by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. It's a solemn but engaging examination of what it is we make of our lives--of what remains, finally, when all else is gone.
The setting isn't Heaven so much as Heaven's admin office: a kind of crumbling old building that resembles an insurance company in some unspecified celestial glade. Every week a new batch of the recently deceased arrives--mostly the old, sometimes the young. They are somewhat bedazzled, perhaps groggy even, but in their still-human way, ever hopeful. Whatever the next step is, they're eager for it, they wait politely for their first interview, and the largely young staff is equally eager to help them.
There have been many movie heavens, usually with foggy floors, cloudy ceilings, lots of backlighting and avuncular angels in togas with twinkly eyes. Ladders seem to be a feature, as are escalators and stairways: The motif is always upwardly mobile. But Kore-eda comes up with something else--this is the first Heaven with video production facilities.
To sustain them in eternity, each former human is given the chance to select a single memory from his life. That memory will be, somewhat crudely, videotaped and presented to the decedent; and wherever the next place is, it clearly will have access to the old VCR.
So the movie is constructed of two narrative themes: the recently dead trying to distill the essence of their existence into a single sequence of memory; and a staff trying to assist them, while at the same time (it may be Heaven but it's still a workplace) dealing with the little crushes, competitions, snits and betrayals that are inevitable to any human enterprise, in this world or the next.
Kore-eda, who became world-famous when his first film, "Maborosi," was shown at the 1995 Venice Festival, has a kind of calm warmth unusual in today's rat-a-tat-tat cinema. Not only are there no special effects, there are no effects period. There's a kind of clarity to his work; nothing is rushed, nothing is syncopated or over-directed. The technique--actually, more a vision than a mere technique--is similar to Wim Wenders's in "Wings of Desire," where grave, knowing angels in black leather coats contemplate human reality with ancient melancholy, until one gives up his immortality for love. (Yeah, they remade it with Nick Cage and Meg Ryan; don't ask me why.) Kore-eda even borrows Wenders's idea of coding by photographic texture, with memory grainier than reality, and the outside--Heaven itself, possibly--lusher than the drab office.
And part of the glory of the film is its truth: The old people Kore-eda has put in his film are not actors and are not reciting from a script, but from their own lives, and their spontaneity and the power of their happiness as they recall this or that small thing is somehow life-affirming in the best way.
At the same time, Kore-eda has been careful in the professional actors he's cast; they're all handsome--Erika Oda and the mono-named Arata, who play the staff's coosome twosome, who learn of their own fates from their interaction with their clients. But they're not just handsome, they've been selected for a particular kind of beauty that is kind and assuring, almost anti-glamorous. If human faces have universal meanings, this cast has been chosen for the decency and the freedom from vanity enciphered in their eyes.
"After Life" is really a celebration of before-death: It's a complete rarity, for movies in general, for Washington in specific--pure sweetness of spirt.
After Life (118 minutes, through Sept. 13 at the American Film Institute) is not rated and contains no objectionable material.
CAPTION: Heaven can't wait: A scene from the sweet, solemn "After Life."