SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! In writer/ director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s I Was a Simple Man, the Hawaiian island of Oahu is as much of a character as any of the people in the narrative. It’s the most lively character, in fact, as the film follows an older man named Masao (Steve Iwamoto) during the quiet, slow off-ramp of a terminal illness as he prepares to die.
Spectacular sunsets, murmuring wildlife, and softly waving tropical plants, in cinematic images so lush you can almost taste the warm winds off the beach, comprise Masao’s farewell from this world. His history is intertwined with the island’s. They came into their own at the same time. Masao reflects on his life in flashbacks and reconstructs his timeline from his youth when he was reprimanded for being close friends with a Chinese girl (Masao’s family is Japanese), through WWII, Hawaiian statehood, and to current times with the island overrun by tourists and tacky resort developments.
As Masao falls deeper into his illness, he is joined by ghosts of his past, including his beloved wife, Grace (Constance Wu), who seemingly walks out of a large tree in his yard, and silently keeps watch over him. He stays in his home but hasn’t the energy to care for his many plants, and the property decays along with him. Even when he’s not feeling as sick, he seems preoccupied with his meditations of the past, already having removed himself from the concerns of the present.
“As Masao falls deeper into his illness, he is joined by ghosts of his past, including his beloved wife…”
He grapples with the more difficult parts of his life, regretting that he was estranged from the family for long periods of time, some of whom are resentful that he expects them to care for him now in his last days. One of his young adult grandsons, Gavin, draws the short straw for some of the duty, and Masao tries to share some of his life lessons with Gavin, but it’s too late. They had not formed the necessary connections that would enable Gavin to see the helpless, dying creature before him as the strong, hearty man Masao was for most of his life. Gavin sees only an older man, and he has no context for an appreciation of old age, nor the man himself.
The movie’s serene beauty is undeniable, but the languid pace, lack of dialogue, and many symbol-heavy scenes of nature make for an experience that stretches out for a long 100 minutes. It takes a particular viewer to have an appreciation for this very specific kind of art film. The challenge will be for I Was a Simple Man to find its audience, which absolutely exists. That said, it’s likely not easily accessible for a casual audience.
I Was a Simple Man, for viewers who can connect, is a satisfying look at both the history of a man and beautiful, under-appreciated land. Yogi brings us close to Masao’s personal tragedy while at the same time pulling back to see life and death at a cosmic level. The movie delves into the cycle of life and death enough so that that audience members can understand and accept the beauty of the process.
I Was a Simple Man screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…it takes a particular viewer to have an appreciation for this very specific kind of art film."