Friday, August 27, 2021

Beasts of No Nation


BEAST OF NO NATION (Fukunaga, 2015)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 31, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

In the opening act of “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), young Agu (Abraham Attah) plays soccer, performs impromptu “imagination TV” acts with his friends, and pisses on his older brother as a bath-time prank. Embraced by his loving family, Agu has managed to lead a relatively happy childhood even though his country (an unnamed African nation, as per the title) is in a state of war between government and rebel forces.

Agu likely has little sense of how fragile the buffer zone in which he lives truly is, but all innocence is shattered when government soldiers round up the villagers, declare them rebels, and begin mass executions. Agu escapes into the bush where he is discovered by a rebel faction, a group consisting mostly of child soldiers led by the menacing Commandant (Idris Elba).

The Commandant is all ambition and no conscience, a sociopath capable of slaughtering villagers, raping children, and then piously leading his young charges in a prayer before their next righteous mission. Writer-director-cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga, adapting a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, turns his agile camera on a gallery of unspeakable horrors, never more effectively than when showing the carefully orchestrated indoctrination program used to brainwash vulnerable children like Agu. The Commandant initially dehumanizes Agu as “this thing” before later establishing himself as a domineering surrogate father, the boy's only protector. Agu (along with others) is subjected to ritual execution and burial alive to be “reborn” as a loyal rebel soldier, ready to follow all orders. Even to kill innocents on command.

Any movie on a topic so grim must stare into the abyss; to shy away from depicting violence for fear of alienating viewers would be irresponsible. But there are times when Fukunaga's unflinching gaze strays into questionable territory. What is the benefit of filming a meticulously choreographed sequence in which a boy shoots a woman in the head while she is being raped? That's a sincere question. Nobody has been appointed as the official moral gatekeeper in such matters, and Fukunaga's urgency in portraying the bleak plight of child soldiers is never in doubt. However, not everything that can be depicted audiovisually should be.

Elba received wide acclaim for his smoldering but never showy performance. A savvy exploiter, the Commandant is a plausible monster, a man who mistakes his ability to bully frightened children as heroic leadership, styling himself as a man of destiny entitled to fame and glory. He feels sincerely betrayed when he learns that his superiors see him as what he truly is, a disposable cog in a profitable war machine. The praise for Elba is fully justified, but Abraham Attah, a non-professional actor from Ghana making his debut, deserves every bit as much attention for his ability to navigate a perilous journey from playful child to trained killer while not fully losing his humanity.

Filmed primarily in Ghana, “Beasts of No Nation” showcases landscapes along with characters, from the red-brown soil along battle-scarred roads to the vast forest canopy stretching to the edges of the wide-screen frame. Fukunaga's cinematography is perhaps too beautiful at times, considering the ugliness of the events depicted, but his mobile camera immerses the audience fully in a harrowing environment.

The film ends on a note of tentative hope that may feel like the first “safe” choice made, allowing viewers a respite from the misery. After such a grueling experience, it's a welcome decision, even if it may seem a bit forced.


The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This “2k digital master, approved by director Cary Joji Fukunaga” looks great, with vibrant colors and sharp image detail. It's a recent film shot digitally, so this 1080p transfer likely looks very close to the original image.


The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is “remastered from the original digital audio master files” and sounds both sharp and dense, with dialogue, sound effects, and music all well-presented. No distortion or drop-off, etc. Optional English subtitles support the audio.


The film is accompanied by a new 2021 feature-length commentary track by Fukunaga and first assistant director Jon Mallard.

“Passion Project' (2021, 61 min.) is a new documentary produced by Criterion which features interviews with Fukunaga, novelist Uzodinma Iweala, producer Amy Kaufman, Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, and others. Fukunaga discusses his long-standing interest in the plight of child soldiers, and how he had been preparing a project on the subject for some time before he came across Iweala's novel. Iweala speaks about his book's genesis, including being mentored in college by Jamaica Kincaid. This feature also spends a good amount of time making it clear that the child actors were protected while filming this frightening story, a question that has to occur to anyone watching the movie.

Criterion has also included a discussion (21 min.) between Fukunaga and cultural commentator Franklin Leonard which touches on some of the same issues as the documentary does.

We also get an interview (20 min.) with costume designer Jenny Eagan and a Trailer (2 min.)

Final Thoughts:

“Beasts of No Nation” received attention not just for its content, but for its release strategy. Netflix won a fierce bidding war for distribution rights, then debuted it on their platform along with a simultaneous theatrical release. It was a groundbreaking decision at the time as well as a controversial one, prompting major exhibition chains to boycott the film. It's not the crowd-pleaser you might have expected Netflix to favor for such a daring move. The gambit didn't pay off in box-office returns, but the film earned both critical plaudits and numerous awards, though, to much derision, the Academy snubbed it completely.

Monday, August 23, 2021

After Life


AFTER LIFE (Kore-eda, 1998)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 10, 2021

Review by Christopher S. Long

“You died yesterday. I'm sorry for your loss.”

In writer/director/editor Hirokazu Kore-eda's “After Life” (1998), the recently deceased gather to be processed for their impending eternity. You can understand how it might take a little time to adjust. Their way station is a ramshackle office building run by a small staff of functionaries who gently explain the situation to the newcomers. Each arrival has three days to select their most cherished memory – a team will then reconstruct that memory as a short film in which the dearly departed will live forever, shuffling off the rest of their mortal coils.

Like much of the greatest speculative fiction (Octavia E. Butler's “Kindred” springs to mind), “After Life” spends no time explaining or justifying its fantastical premise; it is simply the stipulation around which this film's reality is constructed. The dead souls accept the set-up with few questions as well, though one person asks if everyone gets sent here, both good and bad. A counselor merely nods yes before continuing with business.

Most of the cases proceed routinely; the staff has been handling them for years. Perhaps many, many years; it's hard to judge time here. But a few clients have difficulty choosing a memory. Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), a company man who died at 70, looks back on his unremarkable career and his unremarkable marriage and struggles to choose a vivid, happy memory he'd want to relive on an endless loop. His dithering causes trouble for his caseworkers, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda), who try to guide Watanabe through the process while also struggling with their own personal challenges. They wait as Watanabe re-watches his life on a series of low-fi videotapes, one for each year lived.

Perhaps surprisingly, “After Life” hardly deals with theological issues at all. There is little talk of gods or heaven or even who recorded those VHS tapes of Watanabe's life, only pragmatic references to the next place to which all the clients must be sent by the end of the week to clear room for the following week's batch of dead travelers. The job is to keep the line moving as efficiently as possible.

Kore-eda is much more interested in the nature of memory, elusive and protean. When an older woman fondly recalls the beautiful dress she received as a childhood gift, her memory has clearly diverged greatly from the actual lived reality. Had she died ten years earlier or ten years later, that same recollection would have been different still. She has bent, blurred, and buffed that treasured memory over the years to best suit her present, a vast improvement over the more mundane reality. Like everyone, she is a writer, the author of her own history, a work in a constant state of revision. Well, at least until a few days after you die.

Memory can also be a burden. One client is relieved to learn that when he chooses his special moment, he will forget everything else. The rest of his life, it seems, only caused him pain, but once it is forgotten, it can't cause any more suffering. Sometimes memory can be trite. A teenage girl initially chooses to relive the joy of a ride on Splash Mountain at Disney Land, until a weary Shiori explains to her that dozens of other people make the same selection. Maybe she should pick something a little more personal.

Kore-eda honed his craft as a documentarian, and he brings that non-fiction sensibility to his second feature film. He actually interviewed about 500 people, asking them to share their fondest memories, ones they might want to relive in the next life. About half of the clients in “After Life” are played by these interviewees. Much of the film is shot as a series of head-on interviews, where the recently deceased speak at length about their experiences, smiling about happy childhood idylls, bragging about their sexual exploits, or recounting harrowing stories of survival during the war.

Kore-eda credits cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki, an accomplished documentary camera man, with much of the film's naturalistic design, not just the interviews but the lived-in feel of the run-down office building, and the details of that space seemingly caught on the fly. There is nothing the least bit mystical or even slightly surreal about this unique workplace – just a big waiting room, dormitories, and harried, underpaid staffers rushing to get their cases resolved. Kore-eda also employed a second cinematographer, Masayoshi Sukita, to shoot the reenacted memory-films, which are integrated into the whole by showing “behind-the-scenes” work of the crews trying to find creative solutions on a tight budget. How about cotton balls to recreate the clouds in one pilot's memory of flying?

By remaining so understated in style, “After Life” focuses its attention respectfully on its subjects, both the newly dead clients and the workers who help to ease them through what could otherwise be a traumatic experience. The result is an empathetic and sometimes deeply moving meditation on memory, loss, and perseverance.


The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “Approved by director Hirokazu Kore-eda, this new 2K digital restoration was created by TV Man Union. A new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner, from a 35 mm duplicate negative made from the Super 16 mm original camera negative, at IMAGICA Lab in Tokyo.”

The high-def transfer of this film, which was shot on Super 16, is grainy and features a muted color palette – the drab building that houses most of the action isn't exactly decorated to impress. Detail is sharp and the naturalistic look of this transfer feels just right for the material.


The linear PCM mono track is fairly simple, handling the spare, functional sound design of the film quite well. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.


The film is accompanied by a commentary track by film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich, author of “The Films of Kore-eda Hirokazu.” She covers a broad array of topics, from details about the film's production to an analysis of the film's major themes, including the nature of memory.

Criterion has also included a new interview (19 min.) with Kore-eda, in which he discusses the film's genesis, including how he was at least partly inspired by his childhood experience with his grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer's. He also talks about his early time working in documentary and how that influenced his feature film making.

We also get interviews with each of the film's two cinematographers. Yutaka Yamazaki (19 min.) also talks about how his documentary experience influenced his approach to “After Life,” his first feature film. Masayoshi Sukita (15 min.) provides a bit of a career overview, from his experience as a photographer (including many portraits of David Bowie) to his days covering counterculture movements in both Japan and America.

The final extras are a collection of Deleted Scenes (17 min.) and a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out booklet includes an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Final Thoughts:

Kore-eda won the Palme d'Or in 2018 for “Shoplifters” and has earned critical praise for numerous other films like “Still Walking” (2008) and “Like Father, Like Son” (2013). He also directed “Air Doll” (2009), proof that you don't have to get it right every time to still be viewed as a modern master. “After Life” was Kore-eda's second feature, following “Maborosi” (1995), and was his first break-out hit. Criterion's Blu-ray release features a sharp high-def transfer and a handful of supplemental features that do justice to this thoughtful, sensitive film.