Pan-ek Ratanaruang’s “Last Life in the Universe” (2003) is one of those movies I will probably come back to every once in a while. It has a quiet melancholy and unobtrusive presentation that is pleasant and thoughtful without sliding too far down the slippery slope into indie-art boredom. It’s a Thai film, and I’m not very familiar with the country’s national cinema, but it has an accessible “good-natured, modern, alienated youths” core that will be recognizable to most viewers.
The film stars Tadanobu Asano as Kenji, a fastidious Japanese librarian living in Thailand who fantasies about suicide and seems always on the verge of reaching the concrete reality. His reasons, as he explains, lie more with the emptiness of his lonely existence (metaphorically symbolized by a children’s story about a sad little lizard that wakes up and realizes he’s the last lizard in the world) than because of financial or emotional hardships.
Through a series of circumstances he meets a young Thai female escort, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), on the very night that tragedy strikes her sister, Nid. Kenji is afraid to stay in his house because a yakuza crime has occurred there and some bodies are starting to smell, so he eventually ends up staying for several days with the free-spirited and accepting Noi. Though they have trouble speaking each other’s languages, they get along; Kenji cleans up Noi’s terribly messy apartment, while she makes him loosen up.
The leads have a charisma that doesn’t require much development, dialogue or drama, but invokes our compassion through the basic ordinariness and honesty of their performances. Their relationship is built more on a mutual need for company than sex, angst or expression (three things noticeably, and perhaps thankfully, absent from the film). Viewers should not enter expecting the typical romantic comedy treatment of love with quirky humor, perfect hair, the gay friend, a contrived misunderstanding that stalls the relationship and a big public display of overt love that reunites the couple in a blissful ending.
Ratanaruang directs with a surreal inflection that leaves me with mixed feelings. Several moments of “is it magical realism or is it a dream sequence?” are slid casually into the narrative. One scene bothered me with an inexplicable use of semi-gaudy CG (Noi’s house appears to spontaneously clean itself in a whirlwind of debris) that lacked the sincerity required to have emotional impact. Two other scenes, in which Noi is spontaneously switched with Nid, reminded me vaguely of “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977), but without any real meaning or commitment. Perhaps the best touches are Kenji’s early death fantasies and their substitution with reunion fantasies at the very conclusion. Nothing is quite clear about the ending (don’t worry about spoilers, everyone has to see the scenes to decide for themselves), but the emotional progress feels uplifting even while the fantasy, when it is revealed to be only fantasy, is a harsh slap.
These slaps, which Ratanaruang doles out with the sage restraint of a compassionate yet strict parent, also appear at other times: when we suddenly learn more about a character, their past or their inner thoughts (so often hidden) or when something completely unexpected happens with almost no warning (one non-spoiler example is the title appearing about 35 minutes into the film!). These are good shocks, never depended on for carrying the story or holding our interest, while still being capable of transforming the mood generated by cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s beautiful photography. Doyle (“Chungking Express” (1995)), meanwhile, finds unforced images of aesthetic delight in relatively simple exteriors and unassuming interiors.
The main flaw with “Last Life in the Universe” is its basic unoriginality. While it does have a minor twist or two on the unlikely-romance/modern-alienation indie-art paradigm, not much is new. The film feels almost like its flying on auto-pilot over long-ago charted land and nothing much happens to really subvert our expectations or bring fresh insights to light. In the hands of a lesser cast and crew the material would be unmemorable, empty and almost trite, but the performances, direction and cinematography are a redemptive combination.
A nice inter-textual touch that must be mentioned: one scene ends with a character saying, “You’ve seen too many yakuza films” before a cutting to an “Ichi the Killer” (2001) poster near where Kenji is shelving books. “Ichi” not only stars a blonde Tadanobu Asano (Kenji), but is directed by Takashi Miike, who has a cameo at the end of the movie… as a yakuza boss.
Walrus Rating: 7.5
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