By Mark Saldana

Rating 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

My festival officially began with this “Marquee” opener. I have seen several movies that envision or imagine the “afterlife.’ Never before had I ever seen a film that presents the “before-life.” Written and directed by Edson Oda, Nine Days gives its audience an visionary and highly inventive take on what comes before our lives on Earth. It offers the premise that the right to life on our planet must be earned and is determined by authorities who put prospective souls through a series of tests. Perhaps my description of the basic premise doesn’t quite do the film justice, but please, trust me when I say that Nine Days is a deeply remarkable and beautiful movie that celebrates and reflects upon the joys, the sorrows, the wonderful surprises, and the utterly disturbing shocks that people face as they experience what the world has to offer.

Winston Duke stars as Will, a seemingly cold and not-so-personable being who spends his time selecting what he believes are the proper souls to bring to life on our planet. Will isn’t God, or any kind of deity, but deems himself “a cog in the machine.” He selects souls a handful at a time, and puts them through a series of interviews, trials and tests, from which only one will qualify to be born as a human on Earth. When Will isn’t observing and testing subjects, he obsessively watches over the ones he has selected. This is how he learns from his mistakes and judgement errors, and he uses these results to toughen his criteria. The problem is, that no matter how much a perfectionist he is, the world is full of surprises (both wonderful and terrible), and there will never be a perfect candidate, no matter how hard he tries.

This deeply philosophical film absolutely captivated me and moved me in so many ways. Through mostly outstanding writing and skillful direction, Edson Oda takes a basic premise, simple no-frills approach to the presentation, but speaks volumes nevertheless. Though the premise is a bit odd, I love how Oda uses it to examine the frailty of life and the often haphazard and chaotic ways the world impacts our lives. The film asks the usual questions, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “When are people too nice to survive in this dog-eat-dog world?”

Oda argues that there is no perfect way to approach life. We can only do the best we can with what we have and what we can accomplish. There are no real guarantees other than the fact it will end for us individually some day. However, the film isn’t as nihilistic or bleak as that last statement is. It simply reiterates the timeless belief that people must live the best lives that they can on their own terms and hope they can find happiness that way.

In addition to the exceptional writing and direction, every single member of the cast delivers a great performance. Besides Duke, who I will get to shortly, the film stars a wonderful assortment of talent. Benedict Wong gives a very personable and amiable turn as Kyo, another being who assists Will with his work, but has a much more positive outlook than Will. As the candidates up for selection by Will, Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz, Perry Smith, and Zazie Beetz are all wonderful in what they bring to their roles. Zazie appropriately stands out, as her character is beautiful and remarkable, and share a connection with Will.

And as Will, the main one in charge, Winston Duke gives a tremendous, award-worthy turn. Duke shows incredible depth and a beautiful range as a being tormented by his work, but nevertheless determined and driven to make the right choices. I have never before seen Duke take on such a powerful and emotionally charged role as this one. That is not to say that he hasn’t been great in anything else I have seen him, but this particular character shows a beautiful side that he hasn’t expressed in any other work.

So, as far as official festival openers go, I must say that the AFF programmers chose a winner. Though it isn’t the best film I watched at the festival, it is definitely in the top five. This movie is Edson Oda’s feature debut, and is an amazing way to make a big splash as a director. I do sincerely hope that this sleeper type of film gets the attention it deserves, because Oda deserves the opportunity to build a highly successful career from this solid foundation.

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