Sundance 2021 Review: A Complicated Life is Unraveled in Christopher Makoto Yogi’s “I Was a Simple Man”

“Time moves differently out here,” Gavin (Kanoa Goo) says to a new acquaintance in “I Was a Simple Man,” hanging out in the middle of a parking lot late at night in decidedly unglamorous part of Hawaii where the two can be found skateboarding in the dead of night. When there is beauty as there is as far as the eye can see on the islands, the pressure to meet it can be stifling, creating little slices of paradise for the locals not in what they can see all the time, but the precious moments they don’t need to put up a front. Surrounded by strangers, basic observations suddenly become confessions for Gavin, who is taking care of his grandfather Masao (Steve Iwamoto) in his dying days when no other relatives are eager to visit, his own father Henry unwilling to indulge late-night reminiscences and his daughter Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) wondering aloud what’s the use of taking care of someone who hadn’t extended the same courtesy to her.

While Masao’s condition is obvious, it is only the latest thing he’s kept to himself in Christopher Makoto Yogi’s stirring drama, making any entreaties from the rest of his family feel uncomfortable even if he’d actually welcome them. You can’t be certain that Masao was naturally inclined towards such withholding or whether it was a byproduct of the untimely death of his wife Grace (Constance Wu), but resigning himself to a solitary life in Oahu, passing time with booze and cigarettes has made it so the rare occasions that his family stops by, it’s striking to see how few are engaging with him even on an event such as his birthday. He does have companionship in the form of a dog and though his prognosis doesn’t inspire a change in behavior, it does lead him to seek out of the counsel of his neighbor Aikiko (Aikiko Masuda, who fans of Yogi will recognize from his previous film “August at Aikiko’s”), who encourages him towards using the remainder of his time to achieve a sense of peace, whatever that may be for him.

From the very first scene of “I Was a Simple Man,” Yogi suggests a life of serenity could bring chaos elsewhere, disabusing audiences of getting overly enchanted with the film’s idyllic setting when Masao and a friend look out at the construction of hotels meant to give a pleasant stay to tourists have reshaped a place of wonder into man’s vision of it, and in entering Masao’s mind, one is privy to how the landscape has been subject to as many harsh developments in service of the quiet existence he’s put together for himself. The writer/director gently leaps back-and-forth in time, with the past and present occasionally sharing the same plain, to show the cost that living life on his own terms has had on others before ultimately coming back around on Masao, his occasional walks around his palatial parcel of land eventually slowed being consigned to a bed he can’t leave, but only in his memories and although there may be places that seem just out of reach for him, “I Was a Simple Man” can be counted on to go there to devastating effect.

“I Was a Simple Man” does not yet have U.S. distribution.