“Dying isn’t simple, is it?” That question is asked at three separate points in “I Was a Simple Man,” and with each repetition, it sounds slightly less rhetorical, less worldly-wise, more loaded with anxious uncertainty. Christopher Makoto Yogi’s hushed, ruminative study of an elderly man’s last days in Oahu doesn’t quite settle on an answer either. It considers the troubling weight of impending death on the victim — as failing health, glitching memory and drifting ghosts of the past combine to disorienting effect — as well as on his burdened, emotionally conflicted family. Yet there’s serene peace here amid the trauma: At the film’s most lyrical points, mortality doesn’t seem a threat or a ticking clock, so much as a breeze to which you eventually bend. It might help, of course, to be surrounded by the gracious greenery and oceanic soundtrack of Oahu, to which “I Was a Simple Man” also functions as a lovely, loving ode.
In this respect, atop several others, Honolulu-born writer-director Yogi’s sophomore feature continues the beguiling work of his 2018 debut “August at Akiko’s,” a whisper-delicate mood piece that explored Hawaii’s calming effect on a restless psyche. Premiering in Sundance’s U.S. narrative competition, his follow-up is a more ambitious variation on that film’s themes, merging multiple periods and points of view to present a life in all its fragmented glory and banality: There’s something here of Naomi Kawase’s intimate environmental attunement and even, in stray flashes, Terrence Malick’s cosmic grandeur. That Sundance platform, plus the big-name presence of Constance Wu in a quiet but critical supporting role, assures the film broader exposure than its underseen predecessor, though Yogi’s filmmaking remains pleasingly resistant to Amerindie convention.
Yogi opens proceedings in Honolulu, where Masao (Steve Iwamoto) and a friend gaze out upon the city’s high-rise Lego-land and recall when it was “all beautiful green.” As they speak, cinematographer Eunsoo Cho’s supple camera takes flight into the tall, glossy skyline ahead, the men’s conversation eventually lost to a din of jackhammers and industrial progress. It’s the film’s first and most direct illustration of a world leaving Masao behind — though his longtime home, on the island’s more rural North Shore, is more sympathetic to his life’s slowing rhythm. Indeed, the small rainforest of plants surrounding his house track it in vivid, supernatural fashion, blooming or wilting as his physical condition surges or deteriorates.
But they’re mostly wilting these days, and Masao — a widower for over half his life, with only a spindly yellow mongrel for company — is increasingly bed-ridden. His adult children Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai, deeply moving) and Mark (Nelson Lee) attend to him with a sense of more obligation than affection; a second son lives on the U.S. mainland and seems indifferent to his father’s fate, barking brusquely about the time difference when Masao attempts to call.
The history of this familial frostiness is gradually unpacked, however, when Masao receives an unexpected, uncanny visitor: the ghost of his late wife Grace (Wu), whose very appearance signals an imminent bridge to the spirit world. Nothing has been quite right in his life since her untimely passing, though as gliding, colliding flashbacks to different points of his youth make clear, nothing was quite right before. “I Was a Simple Man” most poignantly depicts how age and memory can soften or distort the angles of troubled relationships — sometimes to delusional effect, though sometimes exposing true, underlying feeling beneath all the baggage.
The closer Masao gets to the end, the more the film gives itself over to the past, irregularly darting across the decades to fill in various, unresolved patches of trauma and tension in his life. Chief among them are his pre-Secon World War courtship of Grace — triggering a rift with his Japanese parents, unaccepting of their son dating a Chinese woman — and his post-war decline into feckless alcoholism, as grief brings him briefly together with his children, before driving them achingly apart. Yogi tells this extended, unhappy story in elegant shorthand, leaving the audience to intuit much from the careful cuts and ellipses of his editing. The tale of Masao and Grace’s imperfect marriage, meanwhile, is largely told in the terse but tactile onscreen rapport between Iwamoto and Wu: With little dialogue, the latter is required to channel a lifetime’s (and afterlifetime’s) worth of regret, resentment and enduring love through shadowed expression and body language alone.
Indeed, all Yogi’s actors work in subtle, effective deference to his natural command of atmosphere and place: This is a film where Hawaiian rainfall has as prominent and evocative a voice as any human presence, and where the growth of a tree marks time as clearly as the deepening crevices in a character’s face. A spare, wistful score by Alex Zhang Hungtai (the star and composer of “August at Akiko’s”) and Pierre Guerineau frequently melts into the chattering, whistling sound design of the island itself: The work of man and earth are fused, which feels apt for a film that woozily collapses physical and spiritual dimensions into one. If “I Was a Simple Man” is a ghost story of sorts, it’s still an unusually grounded one: There’s a lot of mystery to unpick in our living years, the film says, before we depart into the further unknown.