ASKED ABOUT THE ORIGIN OF HIS comedy Defending Your Life, Albert Brooks replied that he could only come up with two scenarios for what happens when you die: the one he filmed, and one called "Dirt," where they put you in a hole in the ground and throw dirt over you. Similarly, the overburdened, ineffectual bureaucracy on display in Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life may not be the best of all possible afterlives, but it beats nothing at all.

The film's conceit is that after death, souls are brought to a rundown apartment building, where they are greeted with the type of patiently firm lecture you get waking up in a hospital: Don't be alarmed; we'll try to make this pleasant for you; please save all your questions for the end. In a week's time the souls will be stripped of all memories and experiences save one, which they'll carry with them for eternity. It is the interrogator's job to learn everyone's favorite recollection. That memory is then made physical (I won't tell you how and spoil the surprise), and given to the newly deceased.

The interviews scattered throughout the film--which I'm guessing were culled from actual people--are full of many wonderfully human and humane moments: an old lady's silent gathering of flowers, a schoolgirl's beloved memory of Disneyland, one man's bitter refusal to admit to any damned good memories at all. But, as in Kore-eda's previous film Maborosi, I'm left feeling that he's an extremely ambitious filmmaker whose talent still lies short of his reach. Scenes don't flow together so much as blur into one another; the languid pacing is less hypnotic than tiring.

There's much here to admire, but plenty more that threatened to put me to sleep. If Kore-eda ever gets it together, he promises to be a great director--his patience, humor, and the quiet decency he has toward his characters are what I look for in all my favorite filmmakers. For now, he's just a promising overachiever who's worth keeping your eyes on. This, by the way, is a recommendation for After Life.

* * *

At first blush, Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole seems the most wildly disjointed film of the year. Taking place--as all the films in the Grand Illusion's "2000 Seen By..." series do--on the eve of the new millennium, its setting is perhaps the most impersonal apartment complex in Taiwan, with an endless series of concrete hallways, fire extinguishers seemingly every 10 feet, and a steady hail of garbage from upper stories dropping just past the walkways. Water is omnipresent, from the endless, near-monsoon rain, to the leaking floors and peeled wallpaper caused by a busted water pipe. The story is about paranoia and isolation fueled by a government quarantine, which was prompted by a new disease that causes its victims to scurry away from the light like roaches. And yet, every 15 minutes or so, everything stops and there's a big, brightly colored musical number.

Though we can assume the apartment building is inhabited by teeming masses, beyond brief glimpses of others we only see two people, separated by one floor. He lives upstairs--a drunken, slovenly loner whose idea of cleaning up, when the super arrives to check his pipes, is gathering together the empty beer cans and tossing them in a pile. She lives right below, and is so tidy and efficient that among the personal effects drenched by his leaking pipes is what seems to be a lifetime supply of tissue paper. The busted pipe necessitates that a hole be punched into his floor, and through this tiny window they fall in love.

Actually, at first he throws up on her furniture, and she retaliates by emptying a can of bug spray in his direction. Though Ming-liang has all the hallmarks of a portentous director--long, long takes with very little dialogue--and his movies are certainly filled with moody desperation, his distinguishing characteristic is a wicked sense of humor. Time and again we follow a character who's sitting around doing nothing in particular, only to realize we're being set up for a punch line. It's this combination that makes him unique, kind of like Antonioni with the giggles.

And then there are the musical numbers. Thrown into the story like the dreamy creations they are, these interludes--all lip-synched to tunes by Grace Chang, a '50s singer of thin but energetic and engaging voice, à la Kay Starr--are as beautiful as the rest of the movie is quietly apocalyptic. That is, until the end, when everything switches: The songs become matter-of-fact, and the two apartment dwellers have a breathtakingly magical moment of their own. At that moment, "disjointed" is the last word you'd use to describe the movie: "Masterpiece" seems more like it.

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