“Dying isn’t simple, is it?” It’s a question that echoes throughout the upcoming drama “I Was a Simple Man”. The film comes from writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi and had its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Through his film Yogi turns something personal into a uniquely ethereal look at mortality, repression, and reckoning with the sins of your past. But it’s the perspective that’s distinct. Yogi tells the bulk of his story through the mind of a dying man.
“I Was a Simple Man” was inspired by Yogi’s personal experiences of being in the room as his grandfather was dying. The filmmaker recalled his grandfather calling out to people from his past and seeing faces in the room who weren’t there. The film is Yogi’s attempt to not only process what he saw, but to visualize what his grandfather might have been going through.
Set in Hawaii and shot with undeniable heart and pride, the movie makes it a goal to authentically portray Hawaiian culture, blemishes and all. Rather than deal in rose-colored idealism, Yogi simply tells a universally human story that’s still very specific to the islander tradition and way of life. Cinematographer Eunsoo Cho’s camera ensures the island’s natural beauty is never lost on us. But it’s his still observational style, especially in the early scenes, that plants our feet in the culture. The film is a visual feast but also very grounded.
The story revolves around an elderly man named Masao (a wonderfully reserved Steve Iwamoto). He lives alone, quietly going about his daily routine. Yet there is a sadness in his eyes, an emptiness linked to a rocky past scarred by loss and regret. He has a family, three kids to be exact, but he’s not close to them. Since the death of his wife Grace decades earlier, Masao has given in to his sorrow and has been content to just let his life play out. “I’m going to drink until I’m very old and eventually I’ll die.”
But now he has reached a different stage of his life. He’s found out he is sick and dying. “I’m not ready,” he tells a concerned neighbor as he begins looking back on the years behind him. But the illness quickly takes its toll and Masao begins seeing a ghost from his past, Grace (Constance Wu) in the same beautiful blue flowery dress from the last time he saw her. Bed-ridden and with little time left, Masao’s mind begins parsing through key moments from his life. We get snippets to when he was young (Kyle Kosaki plays teenage Masao) and first met Grace. The more potent flashbacks feature Tim Chiou as adult Masao in 1959. On the same day many in Hawaii celebrated statehood, Masao was burying his wife leading to his eventual disconnection.
At the same time the film is very much a family drama dealing with heavy themes of resentment, forgiveness, and the thorny ground of familial connections. Yogi uses Masao’s daughter Katie (Chanel Akiko Hirai) and his grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo) to convey similar yet different family points-of-view. “How am I supposed to care for him when he didn’t care for us?”, an embittered Katie asks. Meanwhile Gavin is not only looking death in the face for the first time, but he’s wrestling with how he’s supposed to feel about a grandfather who has never wanted to be a part of his life.
The fact that “I Was a Simple Man” manages to successfully juggle all of these feelings and ideas is pretty impressive. It speaks to Yogi’s vision and his willingness to take risks in bringing that vision to the screen. The results are both haunting and elegant; beautiful to the eyes and soul. And while Yogi’s restraint can sometimes leave you longing for more emotion, his heartfelt attachment to the material and his culture is evident in every frame.
VERDICT – 4 STARS