Sundance Review: I Was a Simple Man is a beautifully assembled and yet malnourished film

Set in the present-day Oahu, Hawaii, the film follows the story of Masao (Steve Iwamoto), an aging patriarch who is spending his serene days in his home, with his vast family who intermittently keep him company.

His health is deteriorating and his relationship with his family becomes more and more estranged. When he contemplates his final time before he passes on, he is visited by the ghost of his deceased wife Grace (Constance Wu), who has made her presence known in order to guide his way onto peace and beyond.

This was a film I was very much looking forward to. It had an interesting story, culturally significant factors in the storytelling, a smart directorial approach from Yogi and an interesting cast.

Unfortunately, the film was a mixed bag for me. Yogi shows remarkable chops as a director. His handling of tone, pacing and mood is a marvel to behold as he makes the setting of Hawaii as tranquil and pure as possible; a reflection of Masao’s mindset. There are moments in the film where Masao ventures into his dreams that are reminiscent of the work of Terence Malick and that is a huge compliment.

The cultural significance of Hawaii as well as its history also provides some refreshing context for a well-worn story that we rarely ever see. But what lets it down is the thin characterizations. The actors try their very best but Yogi’s focus on providing a visual and aural experience leaves the cast with very little to do. And if the actors are not engaging as they could be, then the pacing starts to grow tedious; making the emotions feel disappointingly inert.

Overall, I Was a Simple Man is a beautifully assembled and yet malnourished film that is notable for its moments of tranquil beauty and its singular views on mortality and longing. However, the characters are too one-dimensional for the story to truly make a substantial impact.

TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

I Was a Simple Man has screened as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which was presented virtually between January 28th and February 3rd, 2021.  For more information head to the official Sundance page.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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