Marking Christopher Makoto Yogi’s second directorial feature, I Was A Simple Man follows Masao (Steve Iwamoto), an Asian Pacific American close to death. As his family prepares for his passing, Masao is comforted by ghosts of his past, including his late wife Grace (Constance Wu).
Although I Was a Simple Man may sound like a tropical version of The Farewell, this thought quickly falls apart as this could not be more different. At the beginning of the film, Masao has settled into a life of solitude. When his health worsens, he soon sees himself suffering alone as his children unwilling or reluctant to care for him. The film eventually takes a turn when a vision of Grace appears, keeping him company as his condition worsens.
Yogi adopts a somewhat sinister ambience in the narrative that almost kills the emotivity of Grace’s presence. It also dulls the sentimental flashbacks highlighting Masao’s traumatic past, so it becomes even more difficult to empathise with him as a character. Together with the film’s incredibly slow pacing, Masao’s suffering and self-reflection loses their poignancy. We are also left to our assumptions regarding the characters’ significance, especially as most of the cast (including mainstream star Wu) have little impact on the narrative.
However, there is some resonance amid the beauty of I Was a Simple Man. Masao’s thoughts revolve his family and Grace’s importance on his life. Having been close for most of their lives, her passing leaves him broken and immediately chooses to send his children away. While this provides them with ‘better lives’ and saves them the embarrassment of seeing him descend into alcoholism, it feels like Masao taking an easy and selfish choice to contain his heartache. The lingering thoughts on his family, not to mention Grace’s quiet anecdotes, show that a part of him seeks redemption and reconciliation. Unfortunately, the film takes too long to get there.
While Yogi’s somewhat haunting (literally and figuratively) approach will polarise audiences, there isn’t enough substance in I Was a Simple Man to build a connection with its protagonist.
Director: Christopher Makoto Yogi
Stars: Steve Iwamoto, Constance Wu, Kanoa Goo, Chanel Akiko Hirai, Tim Chiou, Boonyanudh Jiyarom
Runtime: 100 minutes