Remaking Kurosawa’s timeless Ikiru (1952) might sound like a pointless endeavor (it’s been three years since director Bong Joon-ho asked audiences to learn how to read subtitles), but director Oliver Hermanus, working with a script from Never Let Me Go author Kazuo Ishiguro, breathes new life into this classic tale of a man for whom death is right around the corner. The result is the rare adaptation that gets it right, crystallising the poignant themes of the original, while also imbuing the material with a distinct cultural flavour and unexpectedly delightful sense of humour.
By the time Public Works Department bureaucrat Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy) is told that he has a terminal illness, audiences are likely to wonder if he was ever really alive in the first place – the actor, tamping down his megawatt charisma, adopts a presence that blends into the wallpaper and a quavering voice that barely rises above a whisper. What follows his diagnosis is a quest to find out what it means to truly have lived and what parts of a person will linger long after we’re gone, ideas borrowed from Ikiru but sleeky transported from black-and-white 50s Japan to grainy 50s London.
While Living retains Ikiru’s melancholic soul, this isn’t immediately apparent under the cheekier tone the film adopts at first. The mind-numbing drudgery of bureaucracy is approached with a comic air, an “eh, what can you do about it?” shrug by Mr. William’s colleagues. The film’s initial portions, brimming over with exactly the kind of liveliness he lacks, zip by breezily. This is unlike Ikiru, in which the punishing 143-minute runtime mirrored its protagonist’s decades of service to a thankless job. Living is 41 minutes shorter, despite its narrative detours and added screentime for several characters.
Ikiru began with a voiceover assessing its protagonist’s insides and diagnosing him with stomach cancer, which let audiences find out they now knew him more intimately than he ever cared to know himself. Living, however, grants even its most minor characters arcs, motivations and a sense of purpose that so eludes Mr. Williams. Even a stranger he encounters at a bar gets a speech that not only reveals his tragic backstory but also his hopeful desires for the future.
When Hermanus’ does employ an economy of storytelling, the results are devastating. In one scene following Mr Williams’ diagnosis, a peek into the contents of his bag reveals three full bottles of sleeping pills. The implications of this single shot are apparent before the dialogue confirms what audiences already suspect the pills might have been used for. Further gut-punches are delivered through the relationship between the bureaucrat and his son, lent touching dimensions in this version. The sight of international treasure Nighy breaking down is a reliable way to induce tears in the audience too.
The rest of the film follows the beats of the original – the protagonist’s quest to build a children’s park as a parting gift to his neighbourhood – but Living is a stunning example of how editing choices can radically change the tone and mood of a film. Its final 15 minutes feature most of the scenes from the original, only reshuffled, concluding the film on a note of bittersweet defiance rather than the sting of pessimism. If Ikiru left viewers with the painful realisation that some things never change, Living delights in the beauty and power that can come from when people do.