Sundance 2021 ‘I Was A Simple Man’ Review: An Esoteric Unraveling of Memory Before Death

Sundance Film Festival

Constructed with great precision and gentleness, I Was A Simple Man is a profound and esoteric meditation on love and loss and the dissolution of all things in time. Every moment is cathartically stretched and elongated, pulled as steadily as taffy. Past and future are grafted together, weighted and studied with much care. Both a ghost story and a pastoral, this film is as haunting as it is serene. 

As his body fails him and his life force slips away, Masao Matsuyoshi (Steve Iwamoto) is immersed in memory and visited by phantoms of his past. The events of his life are excavated, examined with beautiful abstractness, as his living family tends to him in the present. He is frequented by the subjects of his grief and his love, reminded of every version of himself, and swallowed by truth. It is a terribly difficult thing to be so conscious of your own end, yet there is so much peace and sweetness to be found here. Death, his long-passed wife named Grace (Constance Wu) tells him, is not simple. Instead it is complicated by the division between body and soul and the muddling up of time. She died young, leaving him with his sorrow, but has returned to guide him on this strange and soothing journey. Her spirit sits vigil as his physical body withers and his mind traces through all of the melancholy and heartache of his life. Masao returns to their initial young courtship, where they are both so different, and Grace makes startlingly accurate predictions for their future. He remembers the beginnings of his damaged relationship with his children, who he places in the care of their aunt after the death of his wife nearly destroys him. This remembrance is what ultimately allows him to reconnect with his family in the present, deliberately healing those wounds of disconnect, particularly with his daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai), son Mark (Nelson Lee), and teenage grandson Gavin (Kanoa Goo). 

There is something beautiful about the way collective and personal histories are intertwined throughout this film. A young Masao (Tim Chiou) grieves simultaneously for his wife and for the lost independence of his nation as it is forced into statehood. Generational and individual trauma alike are responsible for the fracturing of himself and his family, responsible for the isolation that haunts him until his own end. Masao jokes about drinking until he dies, and this self-destructive behavior is what ultimately leads to his bodily decay. Director Christopher Makoto Yogi cites wanting to explore how generational traumas reverberate into and throughout the present, the people, and the land. The history of the place is deeply felt, always graciously reminding us of where we are. 

Every performance draws strength from quiet and peace, even in fraught moments of hurt or instances where the supernatural becomes consuming. This is from where the camera draws its strength as well. Visually, the film is lush and profound and rooted. Nearly every frame is transfixing—as acutely heartfelt and personal as the words that are spoken—but where Masao as a character is introspective, the visuals explore a larger spiritual connection to nature and the captivating green vastness of his world. I Was A Simple Man evokes something old and time-weathered. It is an impressive and very much stunning rumination on the temporality of our bodies as it contrasts to the immortality of our souls and of the physical environment around us. 

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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