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Review: Soulful poetry of ‘I Was a Simple Man’ tells a quiet story

A white-mustached man and a woman with a flower in her hair in the movie “I Was a Simple Man.”
Steve Iwamoto and Constance Wu in the movie “I Was a Simple Man.”
(Strand Releasing)

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“Death isn’t simple, is it?”

That’s the haunting refrain reverberating in Hawaiian filmmaker Christopher Makoto Yogi’s “I Was a Simple Man,” a stirring, melancholic portrait of an ailing, elderly patriarch grappling with his encroaching mortality.

Set on the North Shore of Oahu, where the island’s pastoral landscape is dwarfed by the modern Honolulu architecture rising in the distance, the story follows the spiritual journey taken by Masao (an impressive Steve Iwamoto), a widower with an undisclosed terminal illness who has lived a largely solitary existence after the death of his artist wife (Constance Wu) decades earlier.

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As his condition worsens, Masao increasingly finds himself in the company of her ghost, as well as a flood of memories from his past while his estranged adult children must reconcile themselves to having to care for someone who was never there for them.

Building upon that family drama foundation, Yogi, who made his debut with the acclaimed 2019 film “August at Akiko’s,” skillfully weaves in elements of mysticism and mythology, culture and history, along with stylistic nods to influential filmmakers at the forefront of the Japanese and Taiwanese new wave.

There’s also a tangible touch of Terrence Malick in the production’s lushly naturalistic visuals (shot by Korean cinematographer Eunsoo Robin Cho) and soundscape, with those restless elements, basked in that golden island light, gently urging Masao toward the end of his earthly life cycle.

Taking a cue from its taciturn protagonist, “I Was a Simple Man” prefers to let its soulful poetic imagery do the bulk of the talking.

‘I Was a Simple Man’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 3, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles


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