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Last Life in the Universe
Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak
rom David Lean’s Brief Encounter to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris to Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, the chance meeting of strangers and the subsequent relationship they develop within a limited timeframe has long served as a fruitful filmic subject. There’s something inherently tragic about the idea of romance cut short by the powers of fate—whether in the form of death, insuperable social taboo, or simply a planned relocation, as in the case of Thai director (6ixtynin9) Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s terrific fourth feature, Last Life in the Universe.
One of the first images we see in the film is a pile of books scattered across the floor, with a slipper on top. As the camera slowly tilts upward, we see a man’s feet, with one slipper on, and then his legs dangling above the books. “My name is Kenji,” a voice says over the soundtrack, “This could be me three hours from now. Why do I want to kill myself?” he muses, “I don’t know. I wouldn’t kill myself for the same reasons as other suicidal people. Money problems. Broken heart. Hopelessness. No, not me.”
Easily distracted by shiny lights…
This is clearly a fantasy sequence, complete with two acquaintances of Kenji’s entering the room and one fainting at the sight of his lifeless body hanging from the ceiling. But a moment later, we see the real-life Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) standing atop a neatly stacked pile of books with a noose around his neck. He’s about to kill himself when he’s interrupted by the doorbell. It’s his gangster brother, who laughs upon noticing that Kenji was about to attempt suicide, an apparently routine recurrence. He hands Kenji a six-pack of Heineken, which Kenji immediately stocks, labels-forward, in his fridge, a character gesture that matches the pristine order of his austerely decorated apartment (dozens of stacks of books and DVDs…and not much else line the walls of Kenji’s living quarters).
This scene is an early example of Ratanaruang’s rather mordant sense of deadpan humor. Perhaps the funniest one comes a little later, when one character says to another that he watches too many yakuza movies just before Ratanaruang, with a spryly meta wink, cuts abruptly to a poster of Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer, featuring Asano’s image; Miike himself even turns up in the film, in a bit part as a yakuza boss.
Kenji, a Japanese librarian living in Bangkok, has attempted to shut himself off from the chaos of the outside world, but things soon spiral out of control when his brother is killed while visiting his apartment and—out of self-defense, not revenge—Kenji shoots the man who’s just murdered his brother. He leaves his apartment as it’s beginning to stink from the rot of the two corpses, and is about to take the plunge off a highway bridge, when, once again, his suicide attempt is interrupted—this time by a traffic accident. Following the accident, Kenji strikes up a sort-of-relationship with Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), the sister of the young woman whose sudden, grisly death he witnessed just as he was about to take his own life.
Oh yeah, like he didn't plan this...
It’s obvious, at once, that Noi is Kenji’s polar opposite. She’s beautiful, but moody and mercurial, and her place is a veritable pig-sty, cluttered and surely infested with god-knows-what, dirty dishes piled about a foot above the sink. Nevertheless, Kenji (in a move reminiscent of Morvern Callar escaping off for a hedonistic holiday after waking up to her boyfriend’s dead body and a suicide note on Christmas morning) takes it up on himself to move in with her, and, somewhat reluctantly, Noi allows him to stay—much to her abusive boyfriend’s chagrin. She’s teaching herself the Japanese language as she plans soon (as in, next Monday) on moving to Osaka, but hasn’t mastered the language to the point where she can speak fluently with Kenji, who himself struggles with Thai. Consequently, they converse mostly in broken English as their relationship, marked by a mutual sense of isolation and subtle sparks of romance, gradually takes shape.
Ratanaruang and master cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Wong Kar-wai’s longtime DP of choice and one of the very best working in movies today) partner together to supply this offbeat love story with an appropriately dreamy visual design. If Doyle’s photography, gorgeous as always, inadvertently calls to mind his past work on films like Wong’s Happy Together and Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon in its expressive use of light and spatial distance, Ratanaruang’s haunting rhythms and idiosyncratic stylistic sense make Last Life a strikingly fresh trip down what may seem a well-worn path. One bizarre sequence, in particular, (it could be a dream or fantasy, a stoned hallucination, or just a neat time-lapse trick—and if you’ve seen the film, I imagine you know exactly which scene it is I’m talking about), is altogether unlike just about anything I’ve seen on screen before. In its ambiguity and eerie otherworldliness, it serves to epitomize the tone that Ratanaruang successfully sustains throughout the film—and that will very likely continue to stick with you hours, even days after viewing it.
By: Josh Timmermann
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