Last Life in the Universe
By Chris Hyde
August 31, 2004
The insinuating mystery of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s vision shimmers across the screen in his Last Life in the Universe.
So here’s an odd suggestion for a writer to start out a piece with: do *not* read this review! Though personally I’ll be perfectly happy if you ignore this tidbit of advice and just soldier on through the next few hundred words, this new Thai film is such a fine experience that it should ideally be assessed on its own merits, without the blathering intervention of some online hack. And it’s not that I intend to reveal any plot twists or to ruin a surprise ending; no, instead it’s that this one is such a wondrous little item that it should be allowed to unravel for the viewer at its own pace and on its own unique terms.
Filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s last project was the interesting Monrak Transistor, an affable but slightly dark musical tale of a hapless Thai singer and his travails. At times sweet and at other times quite sad, this third film by the director revealed him as an artist with an individual vision whose future work would certainly bear watching — a promise which has now been borne out by his latest cinematic offering. If there was any major flaw in this prior effort, it was in the film’s tendency towards rapid shifts in tone that ultimately resulted in an overall feeling of unevenness. Veering from comedy to drama to musical without warning, Monrak Transistor hurt itself a bit with its inability to focus on a consistent tone and to deliver a coherent outlook.
Last Life in the Universe, however, reveals that this director’s style has now matured to a point at which he has gained a far better control over his art. From the very first moments, this measured and cryptic film demonstrates the overarching hand of a man whose singular skill has solidly come together into a truly creative vision. Also helpful in this regard is the talent that he has wisely surrounded himself with for this motion picture; for not only does the film feature Japanese acting superstar Tadanobu Asano (perhaps best known in the States for his appearances in Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi remake) it was also shot by the brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle, a happenstance that notably improves the lot of any film with which he might be associated.
At its base, the story here revolves around Kenji, a Japanese librarian (Asano) working in Thailand whose suicidal inclinations introduce the film and set the stage for all that follows. The motives for this wish to end it all are intentionally obscured, and they don’t seem to let up at all when Kenji’s gangster brother shows up at his apartment to insult him and drink beer. Early on in the narrative we are also introduced to Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) and her sister (Laila Boonyasak), a pair of working girls whose outfits at times tend toward the schoolgirl variety. These two early threads of the film are eventually woven together after a series of violent events in which chance plays a great role; the upshot is that the obsessively neat Kenji ends up staying with Noi in her ramshackle home in the Thai countryside.
There’s certainly far more to the story of Last Life in the Universe than this brief synopsis would indicate, but it would be vastly unfair to this engaging film to discuss much more than has been revealed already. As the narrative unfolds there is much more to be learned about the primary characters and their motivations in living their lives the way that they do, and yet there’s never the sort of hardheaded explication that is common in films too rational to linger in enigma. Here the mystery is pervasive as well as puzzling, and the dreamy manner in which the film proceeds only adds to its entrancing delight. The tempo of this movie can only be described as languorous, but the slowness is always alluring rather than dull; in fact, the action is so captivating that certain stylistic flourishes — such as the film’s title never appearing until a good three quarters of an hour in — seem utterly natural rather than being distantly arty.
This film overall exudes an organically fresh feeling, and in sum, its lingering moments seamlessly run together to create a final product that is as simply fascinating as anything to have come out of the world of Asian film in recent memory. With his training as an art director, Pen-ek Ratanaruang has an easy affinity with intricate mise-en-scene that in tandem with the amazing camerawork of Christopher Doyle results in a visually gorgeous look that underlines the movie’s central themes. The top quality dramatic performances by the film’s cast should also be mentioned as crucial to the film’s success; beyond the riveting turn put in by Asano in the lead role, the Boonyasak sisters comport themselves quite ably throughout - as does director Takashi Miike in a hilarious cameo as a yakuza thug.
If there’s any weakness here at all, it turns up in the cinematic screenplay. Though in the main the script is quite fine when dealing with the main players, some of the peripheral figures are too sketchily drawn and inconsequential. The part of Kenji’s boss, a somewhat matronly Japanese woman, leads more or less nowhere besides a moment or two of comic relief. Even worse is the cardboard figure that is Noi’s mean boyfriend, who in his brief time onscreen hits just about every clichéd note that you’d expect the abusive hood to have in his range. Still, none of this is in any way lame enough to be all that distracting and the film’s primary narrative drive is so intriguingly opaque that one’s attention is likely to be fixated elsewhere anyhow.
The Thai cinema has undoubtedly proven itself to be worthy of global attention in recent years, as filmmakers in that nation have created some world-class motion pictures that evince an uncommon approach to film. But while directors like the Pang Brothers, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Wisit Sasanatieng have managed to garner deserved international acclaim, none of the movies produced by these other artists appear to possess the depth of skill seemingly in evidence in the celluloid work of Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Though to this point he still has but four films in his resume, with his latest indecipherable outing he is shown to be someone who might eventually even be considered among the world’s best. For Last Life in the Universe in its own way is shrouded and impenetrable, intriguing and infuriating, hopeful and cynical, completely seductive and at times off-putting. All in all, it’s an enticing experience that should reward any viewer willing to surrender their attention to its disarmingly subtle magic; for this writer it is assuredly the best theatrical film I’ve seen so far in 2004 - and something pretty good is going to have to come along to knock it off that perch.