Last Life in the Universe
Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Starring: Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak,
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
In this languorous melancholic film the only
thing that seems to happen suddenly is death. It happens in the blink of
an eye. One second you are alive, the next moment dead and you barely see
it coming. It’s not neat. It’s not clean. Instead it is bloody and messy.
And it smells. Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) thinks often of death. His own. He
contemplates suicide constantly and often seems on the verge of doing so
only to be interrupted by fate. In his anti-septic lonely world it seems
to be his answer – his note simply reads “This is bliss”. Much of these
thoughts though are almost masturbatory in nature – mental releases – and
when the chance comes to die by simply doing nothing, he fights for his
From Osaka, he has somehow ended up buried in
Bangkok working in a Japanese library and avoiding as much social interaction
as possible as he surrounds himself in his apartment with piles of books
– many of them the same ones. His life is neat and orderly – his socks
and shirts organized by color – and very empty. His favorite book is
“The Last Lizard”, a children’s book that tells the tale of the last lizard
in the world. Hints about his past life slowly seep out. Two events fall
into his isolated orbit that force him to come to the surface of life.
His Yakuza brother comes to visit – exiled to Thailand because he screwed
the boss’s daughter. He thinks they have forgiven him – they haven’t. Another
tragedy brings about his acquaintance with a Thai bar girl (Sinitta
Boonyasak) and he spends a few desultory days with her staying at her
ramshackle disheveled home on the beach. She is going to Osaka in a few
days to work, he has some angry Osaka gangsters waiting for him at home.
They start falling in love.
The style of this film is nothing like the director’s
previous work that I have seen – Monrak Transistor and 6ixtynin9. Both
of those films had strong story lines and large elements of black humor.
His last film Monrak was at times very bleak and yet underneath it was
a very humanistic and warm sentiment. This film is cool to the touch. Sleek,
distant and dreamlike. The plot is secondary to the mood, atmosphere and
visuals that are created. With the lush cinematography of Christopher Doyle,
the back and forth time jumps, the cleaning of the apartment, the hypnotically
slow pace and the characters emotional void, it almost has to remind one
of the work of Wong Kar-wai – and most critics have pointed this out. The
comparison – at least regarding this film – seems valid though Pen-ek Ratanaruang
shows a sly sense of humor that Wong’s films generally lack and he finishes
his films much quicker!
The compositions in the film are stunning – opaque
colors infuse the scenes - it opens with a shot of a lime green lizard
on a green wall – then to two chairs against the wall – then to a man hanging
from a noose – all beautifully framed. Later a blood-splattered wall begins
to almost take on the look of a Japanese water painting as it drips down
and takes form. It is a beautiful film that at times might test your patience
with its suffocating stillness, but it is at the same time fascinating
and clearly one of the best films from Thailand yet.
The performance from Asano Tadanobu is very good,
very subtle – as different as his role in Ichi the Killer as one could
imagine. In a tongue in cheek joke, the camera pans by a poster of Ichi
on the library wall. He completely dominates this film with his quiet yet
shyly charming portrayal of this man. Look also for the cameo from Miike
Takashi as a yakuza. If you were wondering as I was, there is a section
in the film in which the main actress is interchanged with another actress
– the one who plays her sister in the film and is in fact her real life
sister (Laila Boonyasak). Whether this was a winking homage to David Lynch
I am not sure – but it adds to the unease and dreamy atmosphere of the
film. At times you wonder if much of it is a surreal dream or real.
The film’s dialogue is in Thai, Japanese and English
and so on the DVD be sure to choose the “Original” soundtrack option as
opposed to the Thai soundtrack that is all dubbed into Thai.
My rating for this film: 8.5