At nearly the mid-year mark, the film at the top of Filmbrain's 2004 list is Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe. He's seen the film four times now (once at the Tribeca Film Festival, other times on DVD) and each subsequent viewing reveals more and more. Back in April, Filmbrain received an email from Oliver at Pop Life, who had seen the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival. In it, he said that the film was what Lost in Translation was aiming for and missed. Though the two films are far from identical, there is more than a bit of truth in his statement.
Last Life in the Universe is set in Bangkok and centers on a Japanese librarian named Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) who is obsessed with committing suicide. Though living in a foreign country, he has done nothing to integrate into the culture, and his entire life is spent between his job at a Japanese library and his rather sterile apartment, which one character actually mistakes for a library, given the mass amount of categorized books stacked throughout. The lizard shown walking up his wall in the opening shot is the only indicator of the locale.
Kenji's life is all about order. His shoes, socks, and underwear are filed by day of the week, and his wardrobe consists of identical shirts and trousers, with only slight variations in color. When an item is used in his kitchen, it is immediately washed and put back in its place. He has no friends or acquaintances in Bangkok, save for his older, matronly boss who makes several failed attempts at inviting Kenji over to her place. In his spare time he contemplates suicide, though we're never sure why. Every attempt is thwarted at the last minute by some form of interruption.
In contrast to Kenji is Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), a young Thai prostitute who lives in a house that couldn't possibly be any messier. She's the polar opposite of Kenji -- he's a stoic that reads, she gets high and watches bad television. He's a man of few words who is endlessly polite, while she is brash and direct. The two meet through an unfortunate circumstance, and both their lives will be changed forever as a result.
By description alone, the film doesn't sound like much. (Thankfully, it doesn't turn into a "hooker with a heart-of-gold saves suicidal man" story.) The acting (particularly by Tadanobu Asano), combined with small touches and subtleties (perhaps missed on first viewing) that Ratanaruang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle bring to the film elevate it to near-perfection status. Asano is one of the most versatile actors working today. He was the blond gang member with the slit mouth in Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, and most recently appeared as the samurai bodyguard in Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi. (The Miike presence is strong -- not only is an Ichi the Killer poster prominently displayed, but Miike himself turns in a wonderfully comic performance as a Yakuza boss.)
|Ratanaruang's direction is extremely controlled, and there's not a superfluous word, gesture, or shot in the entire film. That the title credit doesn't appear until thirty-five minutes into the film is no gimmick, but relevant to the way the story unfolds. This is a film you sink into -- its meditative, slow, lingering shots allow the images to tell the story as much as the (minimal) dialog. The lizard on the wall, the rust stains on Noi's VW, the knife in the kitchen -- all will take on multiple meanings and functions throughout the film.|
What Filmbrain loves about the film is how Kenji and Noi's relationship evolves out of a third language. Given how they meet, the outcome would no doubt be different had either one spoken the other's language. What's left then is for the two of them to act on instinct, emotion, and broken English. As a result, the two of them learn more about each other than they would have under 'normal' conditions. It's a case of things found through things missing. When Kenji first arrives at Noi's house, she rummages through the mess and pulls out a Thai-Japanese language tape, which is the only dialog heard for the next ten minutes. It's an interesting gesture, even if its purpose isn't readily apparent. Is it for his benefit or hers, or simply a replacement for a conversation they can't have? Though two people communicating in a third language is nothing new, no other film has approached it quite like this. Both are running away from something, and they meet at a time where they each feel they are the last life in the universe. The reason behind Kenji's quirky behavior in the first half is beautifully revealed in the second, but through detail, not exposition. The same holds true with Noi's character development. One could argue that the film has a Buddhist-like quality, with its seemingly fate-driven circumstances.
Christopher Doyle's cinematography is, as always, beyond beautiful. It rivals his best work, including the gorgeous In the Mood for Love (which somewhat explains the Wong Kar-wai-ness of the film.) The score by Hua-Lampong Riddim (used generously throughout) is haunting and lush and greatly adds to the mood of the film. (The CD is well worth tracking down.)
While it is possible to make comparisons with Lost in Translation, it's clear that the director's intent was different. Sophia was a stranger in a strange land, whereas Ratanaruang (at home with Bangkok) is more interested in revealing a slice of Thai life not often depicted in films. Unlike Kenji and Noi, what unites Bob and Charlotte is more circumstantial than coincidental. Still, the focus in both films is on an unlikely relationship that exhibits restraint, so comparisons are inevitable.
With its blend of drama and dark comedy, Last Life in the Universe is a film that can easily be viewed multiple times. The interplay between Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak is so perfect that it's hard to believe this is her first film. Palm Pictures will be releasing the film in the US in August (selected cities only).