Sundance 2021: ‘I Am A Simple Man’ Is A Ghost Story Dealing With Finality, Atonement, and Acceptance

Masao (Steve Iwamoto) sits mute in a doctor’s (Angelica Quin) office, as he is told his health is rapidly deteriorating. He could take precautions such as giving up smoking and drinking, but it appears he has accepted the last days of his life is near. There are beliefs that before we die, we recall all the major moments of our lives like a review. I Am A Simple Man does this in four instances, each broken up in places that affected Masao’s psyche the most. What follows is a story about how sadness can kill, the enduring power of heritage, and the feeling of letting go. While there is grief in who we leave behind in death, there’s brevity in knowing what we can leave behind.

I Am A Simple Man, forged by writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi speaks to a man’s dying days as he looks over the impactful periods of his life. Sorrow seems to be the fundamental constant within the heart of Masao. He loses his wife Grace (Constance Wu) prematurely. In that grief, he distances himself from his children where he tells a friend, “I’m gonna drink until I’m very old and eventually, I’ll die.” One night, Masao sees the ghost of Grace and they stay together until he meets his natural end. As his body and mind degrade further, the environment around him does as well. When we sense that death is near for us, we reject it as death is scary. We don’t want to run out of time. Masao tries to reject the coming of Grace’s spirit but eventually gives in to this companionship, which also doubles as a metaphor.

On August 21st, 1959, Hawaii officially became a state in the United States. This day also happens to be when Grace dies, adding an extra layer of distance between the family, their father, and their native land. Masao’s children, Kati (Chanel Akiko Hirai) and his sons Mark (Nelson Lee) and Henry only tend to him because he’s their father. Kati, in particular, struggles with the notion of her being there for him and not vice versa. (Henry, we don’t even get to see.) It begins Masao’s distance from his family, although one flashback scene occurs with young Masao (Tim Chiou) and young Kati (Alexa Bodden) spending quality time together. Showing that there’s a hint of heart within the scar tissue of his memories.

Ironically, Masao becomes an indirect connector of his family history that his children and grandchildren revisit. Although he may have messed up his relationship as a father, he tries to make amends with Kali’s son, Gavin (Kanoa Goo). Although they don’t have a relationship, Masao provides knowledge in one phrase to him; “Don’t get old. Old age is not for guys like us.” Once a vibrant young man, Masao is confined to bed rest towards the end of the film which the ghost of Grace at his side.

Yogi along with the cinematography style of Eunsoo Cho displays scenes in wide shots. Often depicting the mortality of Masao lessening by the day or the beautiful lushness of the Hawaii beaches. Even towards the beginning, Masao saying goodbye to his family, and the camera stays longer than expected depicting the emotional distance between them. There is equal dedication in focusing on a forest or birds, as there are the human characters. As we get closer to the end, there’s even more of an emphasis on nature and how it essentially takes over the house that young Grace (Boonyanudh Jiyaroom) foretells Masao that he will die within.

At the heart of the story is love. Constance’s Wu portrayal of Grace as the last time Masao saw her is a tranquil foil to his guarded and defensive nature. Their relationship is marked by the sacrifice that Masao made to be with her – his parents not approving their relationship because she is Chinese, and he is Japanese. As he finds that his parents and siblings die in Japan during World War II, a speck of nihilism starts to grow within his heart. Slowly but surely rending him ineffective to anyone around him.

Choosing Grace leads Masao to be cast as an outsider by his community. However, as depicted by flashbacks and his willingness to stay, the community seems to be the best part of him. A scene where islanders dance in from the the ocean as Grace and Masao join hands is a symbolic depiction of this. I Am A Simple Man shows the degradation of bitterness and redemption of sorts for Masao. Grace ghost asks him, “Dying isn’t simple, is it?” In the end, he finally obliges. Yogi makes a ghost story that emphasizes the impermanence and mortality of man, but how nature and spirituality can alleviate us of those burdens when our time has come.


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Author: Murjani Rawls View all posts by
Journalist, Self-published author of five books, podcast host, and photographer since 2014, Murjani Rawls has been stretching the capabilities of his creativity and passions, Rawls has as a portfolio spanning through many mediums including music, television, movies, and more. Operating out of the New York area, Rawls has photographed over 200+ artists spanning many genres, written over 700 articles ranging displaying his passionate aspirations to keep evolving as his years in media continue.

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