This time-bending, tear-jerking masterpiece reflects on the past and current state of Hawaiʻi.
Christopher Makoto Yogi’s “I Was a Simple Man” is a recent example of locally made independent cinema to seek out and cherish. It’s also one of the most thoughtful, emotionally rich and complex films ever made about living in Hawaiʻi during times of change.
Yogi’s Oʻahu-based film has stayed with me since it left me bawling at the 2021 Hawaiʻi International Film Festival. It is now streaming for free on Kanopy and a must-see for everyone.
It begins with a shot of two men having a private discussion in a parking garage. The camera slowly closes in on them and we realize that this isn’t a moment of two criminals planning a heist, but something else entirely. The introduction isn’t the first time the camera lingers on an image that we think we understand — until we realize something greater, or perhaps simpler, is taking place.
The opening scene deceptively suggests a crime film, until we see how its core theme delves into how time and unwanted changes have altered the environment of Oʻahu.
This is the story of Masao Matsuyoshi (played by Steve Iwamoto), an elderly man living on Oʻahu who, nearing the end of his life, has visions of his late wife. Masao is flooded with memories of their romantic courtship and later visited by his wife’s ghost. Figures from the past and present materialize as Masao’s existence, both spiritual and physical, becomes more about reflection than survival.
At one point, the past and present meld into one another and provide commentary on the future. Other scenes present Oʻahu pre-and post-statehood. This is unlike any other film about life in Hawaiʻi.
The pacing is extremely slow, which will bother some, but it fits the film, as we’re seeing life through the eyes of a man who shares a unique relationship with time. Masao isn’t merely coming near the end of his life, he is revisiting the moments and decisions that defined his lifetime.
Yogi’s film, which takes place in present day Oʻahu and during the time of the transition to statehood, is among the most poetic, personal and significant works of locally made independent cinema I’ve ever encountered. As a film that portrays the pain, confusion and renewed joy found in our memories, the amount of depth here is staggering.
Constance Wu is the biggest name in the cast, though Iwamoto is excellent in the lead role. While the film is opulent and showcases breathtaking scenery, Yogi hasn’t made a film to please mainlander audiences or even attempted to water down the thematic complexities for the mainstream. “I Was a Simple Man” is deeply personal, but also tender, compassionate and original.
Yogi hasn’t made a horror film but a hard-to-describe mood piece. The style of Yogi’s film reminded me of the works of Yasajirō Ozu or even the style of “Uncle Boonmee.” As modern day and memories of the past wash over Masao, we sometimes struggle with him to grasp which time we’re in. There’s also striking moments where the past and present materialize simultaneously in his home, allowing him to reflect on the enormous physical and emotional space left by those who are gone.
The final scene is supposed to resemble the closer from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” one of the many bold touches here that pay off. Be sure you track this one down. This film made me weep openly and truly left me in awe. Yogi’s film is a masterpiece. (On Kanopy)
Dead of Night (1945)
This groundbreaking British thriller is about an architect who arrives at a country house inhabited by a cluster of visitors, and has dreamt about everything that is going to happen next. Each of the house guests have a story, which the audience experiences as individual episodes. This is an anthology horror film with a final vignette — a stunner involving a living ventriloquist doll — and a shocking finale that still leaves an impact. “Dead of Night,” among the first of its kind, remains a milestone because the formula it created has never been recreated with this much depth, intricate plotting and seamless blending of multiple collaborators. (On Kanopy)
Funny People (2009)
Writer-director Judd Apatow’s most polarizing comedy was deemed too long and overly serious in theaters. Now, this smart, prickly character study is looking like Apatow’s best and funniest film. Adam Sandler stars as a popular film actor and comedian who takes an up-and-coming stand-up comic (played by Seth Rogen) under his wing. Unlike Apatow’s “The 40-Year Virgin,” the characters aren’t always likable, and the screenplay challenges the audience by making the protagonist a narcissistic mess. Sandler is excellent and he’s surrounded by a terrific ensemble cast. (On Netflix)