Writer/director Christopher Makoto Yogi's film "I Was a Simple Man" debuted at Sundance Film Festival 2021.

Review: ‘I Was a Simple Man’ explores generational trauma

Death is a difficult topic to talk about, much less tackle and present in such a beautifully shot, emotionally charged, and naturally serene film that is I Was a Simple Man.

Writer/director Christopher Makoto Yogi’s second feature film I Was a Simple Man debuted on Friday, Jan. 29 at Sundance Film Festival for the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a film that starred a full Asian American cast, created by a Asian American crew. I definitely looked forward to I Was a Simple Man‘s screening.

Synopsis of feature film, I Was a Simple Man

Steve Iwamoto and Constance Wu star as Masao and Grace in Christopher Makoto Yogi's second feature film "I Was a Simple Man."
Steve Iwamoto and Constance Wu star as Masao and Grace in Christopher Makoto Yogi’s second feature film “I Was a Simple Man,” which premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021. / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The rushing wind on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawai’i, never stops. It constantly rustles the leaves outside Masao (Steve Iwamoto)’s house, providing a balmy sonic backdrop. As Masao gets sicker, ghosts of his past, including his wife, Grace (Constance Wu), visits him. She helps shepherd him into the beyond.

About Christopher Makoto Yogi

A black and white photo of writer/director Christopher Makoto Yogi
Christopher Makoto Yogi, writer/director of I Was a Simple Man, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Christopher Makoto Yogi is from Honolulu, Hawai’i.  His debut feature film, August at Akiko’s, premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam. Richard Brody listed the film as one of his “The Best Movies of 2019” in The New Yorker. 

During the Filmmaker Intro segment before the premiere of I Was a Simple Man, Yogi explained that the film was “born out of love for my home, Hawaii” and that he was ecstatic “to share my love for my home through the opportunity of cinema.”

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.

Read our review of I Was a Simple Man

Haunting themes of death, grief, trauma

Death

Masao lost the love of his life and he just wasn’t really right after that. And he couldn’t care for his children; he chose to seek comfort in drinking and gambling. But the event of Grace’s death already occurred prior to the opening of the film’s timeline. What stood out was the film exploring Masao’s life and his inevitable death. We learn in the first ten minutes that he is sick and dying. About two or three times in the film, the ghost of Grace asks Masao “Dying isn’t simple, is it?” Though his friend and neighbor Akiko actually tried to soothe him and remind him that his illness “is a part of [him] now” and to “let it in.” This interaction hinted at Masao’s inevitable death. Although I knew the film conclude with his death, I was hooked from the start. I needed to know more about this flawed, simple man.

Grief

Masao’s daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) played a role in the story to explore grief. She was a young girl when she lost her mother and the flashbacks of young Kati spending time with her father helped us learn how she handled

The Japanese American immigrant story comes out

In the many flashbacks during the film, some of which are actually out of order so it took me a moment to put the timeline together in my head, we learn that young Masao’s drunk of a father never considered Hawaii as his home. Masao’s parents wanted to go back to Japan and when they did, World War II happened. Masao stayed in Hawaii and the rest is history.

But what Yogi highlights is a bit of a Japanese American immigrant story, where Masao’s parents were grappling with the idea of where home is. Masao grew up in Hawaii, he always thought of Hawaii as home. The trauma of Masao’s father reverberated into Masao’s present and future.

I Was a Simple Man is a ghost story

Far from scary and quite cathartic. My kind of ghost story, it appears. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not into ghost stories. But Yogi won me over. The ghost of Grace is incredibly melancholic and eerie. She leads viewers through events of the past and in some flashbacks, a young Grace recounts future events as if she’s a seer. I took those scenes as Masao’s subconscious reminding him that death was coming and that his wife was still waiting for him. The ghost of Grace acted like a reaper. She hovered over his bed, biding her time to take him to the other side.

Constance Wu nailed that part. I loved her performance in ABC’s family comedy Fresh Off the Boat and I was so ecstatic to see her perform in this film.

You feel like you’re in Hawaii

During the Filmmaker Intro, Yogi ended with this note: for us to enjoy the next two hours in Hawaii. The film is not only set in pastoral Hawaii, it is fully rooted in pastoral Hawaii. Hawaii itself felt like another character in the film. We see many shots of luscious nature such as close-ups on leafage and far shots of the ocean waves thrashing against the sand, coupled with serene sounds of thunder and rainfall. If you extracted the audio from the film, you’d get your little own soundtrack of pastoral Hawaii.

During the Q&A segment after the film premiere, Yogi stated that “the film takes on a calming, very meditative pace. In a way, I think nature sort of watches over you.” When an online audience member asked about how sound worked in the film, Yogi stated “the idea was to always feel the presence of the island.”

Conclusion

This is my first time attending an online film festival (thank you Sundance!), and I’m so glad I chose to watch Christopher Makoto Yogi’s I Was a Simple Man to kickoff the film festival experience. I hope more people can watch this film someday and appreciate the hauntingly beautiful stories of Hawaiians like our protagonist Masao.

Read more of ChinLin’s articles.

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