'I Was a Simple Man': Film Review | Sundance 2021

I Was a Simple Man
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Steve Iwamoto and Constance Wu in 'I Was a Simple Man'

A healing haunting.

Christopher Makato Yogi's second feature is a gentle reflection on memory and death, featuring Constance Wu as the ghost of a woman who returns to comfort her Japanese Hawaiian husband near the end of his life.

In the opening scene of Christopher Makoto Yogi's lyrical family drama, I Was a Simple Man, the elderly protagonist looks out over densely built-up Honolulu and recalls when there was just beautiful green where concrete towers now cluster. That sense of a spiritual connection to nature, cultural foundations and people long departed, even to the characters' younger selves, permeates this delicate, time-shifting study of a solitary man's rueful end-of-life introspection. "Dying isn't simple, is it?" asks the ghost of his wife, who died young, leaving him with sorrow and anger. But it's a transition that ultimately brings peace in this modest work of lingering beauty.

The writer-director's 2018 debut feature, August at Akiko's, explored similar themes through the story of an islander musician returning home to rediscover how deep his roots are planted. The new film centers on a man who never left, even when his Japanese-born parents tried to convince him he would always be a cultural outsider in Hawai'i. "The longer we stay here the worse it gets," says his stern father in one of the film's dreamy shifts back to earlier times.

Masao (Steve Iwamoto) is an ailing man with little use for the city, which would appear to rule out hospital treatment despite his advanced illness. Convinced when his wife Grace (Constance Wu) died in 1959 that he would only mess up his three children, he left them to be raised by an aunt in town. When a friend asks him at the time what he plans to do with his life, Masao says: "I'm gonna drink until I'm very old and eventually, I'll die." That end is fast approaching as he ignores the urging of his kind doctor (Angelica Quin) to stop drinking and smoking.

At a local Buddhist temple, Masao's neighbor (Akiko Masuda, the title character in Yogi's first film) tells him to accept the illness. "It is a part of you now," she says. "Let it in." That openness toward decay and death as a gateway to a plane of higher understanding emerges in subtle ways throughout the film.

Masao lives alone with his skinny old dog Moki in a run-down house on the north shore of Oahu, its relative isolation amplified in the enveloping elemental soundscape of rain, wind, rustling leaves and the waves of the Pacific. He burns candles and incense at a small shrine in his home to his parents and Grace.

Masao's unseen son Henry lives on the mainland and wants little to do with him; his daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) and her family have a full house in Honolulu, visiting infrequently; and his other son Mark (Nelson Lee) is somewhat adrift, his spacey manner and poor time-keeping putting his job at risk.

"Mom has been coming by," Mark tells his father, with matter-of-fact simplicity considering she's been dead for decades. "She told me they're all returning." When Grace does indeed start appearing in the folds of a mighty tree trunk, her presence sets Moki barking. Masao initially tries to keep her and other spirits away, spreading a ring of salt around his house for protection. But when she steps forward, barefoot, with a flower in her hair, wearing the dress in which she was buried, he clears a path and silently ushers her inside.

As Grace's ghost keeps vigil by Masao's bed and his health rapidly declines — the plants and fruit trees around his house withering as his body weakens — the film drifts back, first to the period of her death, when Hawaiian statehood became effective.

Hothead Masao (Tim Chiou) drinks and gambles and gets into fights in pool halls, but for a brief time he's still able to show tenderness to preteen Kati (Alexa Bodden), teaching her to play the shamisen and scattering her mother's ashes with her under the tree where Grace later reappears. Those moments play in melancholy counterpoint to scenes with the older Kati when she comes to tend to her father but struggles with the responsibility, still hurt that he couldn't care for his own children.

Another time shuffle takes the action back to Masao and Grace's courtship in the years before World War II, when his parents were opposed to him dating a Chinese woman. Played at that age by Kyle Kosaki and Boonyanudh Jiyaroom, respectively, they are a couple very much in harmony, and Masao an entirely different man from the one he gradually becomes. Grace's ghost remembers him being "unafraid to love."

These memories — seductively framed by DP Eunsoo Cho against lush, green sugar plantations and pristine beaches — are conjured partly out of Grace's notebooks, which Kati retrieves from a shelf, and partly in Masao's mind. Yogi, who also edited, weaves them together into an unhurried but fluid narrative that drifts among the three time periods with a sort of surreal lucidity. That aspect is enhanced by the gentle score of Alex Zhang Hungtai (who also appears here, and played the musician in August at Akiko's) and Pierre Guerineau, combining pensive piano doodling with ambient tones blended together with the vivid presence of the natural world in Sung Rok Choi's sound design.

The edges are perhaps rougher and the narrative more structured, but the film carries echoes of the work of Asian contemplative cinema maestros Tsai Ming-liang and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, both of whom Yogi cites as influences. There are also quiet political notes in acknowledgments of the ambivalence toward American statehood. In one lovely moment, the young Grace, who foresees the coming war, recounts a dream in which she saw Masao as an old man, with no soldiers around and no one speaking English, only Hawaiian and Chinese and Japanese. "It was heaven."

The mix of professional and untrained actors creates a seamless ensemble of naturalistic performers, erasing boundaries between name talent like Wu and soulful lifelong islander Iwamoto, in his first leading role.

One of the drama's most captivating threads unfolds when Kati's teenage son Gavin (Kanoa Goo) takes his turn looking after Masao. A skateboarder who blasts hardcore punk through his headset, he admits to having no relationship with his grandpa, who tells him: "Don't get old. Old age is not for guys like us." But in a gorgeous exchange over a joint with a cool fellow skater (Lila Lee) at the local car park hangout, something seems to alter within him as he reassesses the situation, resulting in a poignant wordless scene that follows. "Time moves differently out here," Gavin observes, which is as apt a summation as any of this heartfelt and unquestionably personal film.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Talk Tree
Cast: Steve Iwamoto, Constance Wu, Kanoa Goo, Chanel Akiko Hirai, Tim Chiou, Boonyanudh Jiyarom, Kyle Kosaki, Alexa Bodden, Angelica Quin, Alex Zhang Hungtai
Director-screenwriter: Christopher Makoto Yogi
Producers: Sarah S. Kim, Christopher Makoto Yogi, Matthew Petock, Yamato Cibulka
Executive producers: Ken Whitney, Elizabeth Reiko Kubota Whitney, Ric Galindez, Roy Tijoe, Eric Nyari
Director of photography: Eunsoo Cho
Production designer: Rocio Giménez
Costume designer: Mai Yamazaki
Music: Alex Zhang Hungtai, Pierre Guerineau
Editor: Christopher Makoto Yogi
Sound designer: Sung Rok Choi

Casting: Eyde Belasco
Sales: UTA
99 minutes