Much of Last Life in the Universe, a brilliantly atmospheric, sweetly nutty film by 42-year-old Thai wunderkind Pen-ek Ratanaruang, unfolds in and between two Bangkok homes color-coded to reflect the temperaments of their residents. One, squeaky-clean, neat as a pin and very, very blue, is the sort of pomo pad you might find in an upscale whiskey commercial. Not a breeze blows through it, and we cant tell whether its day or night. The other, a sprawling country shack, is a total dump, strewn with litter and as green with chaotic life as the first is spiritless and, as it turns out, reeking with death. The inhabitants of these two houses, both marginal types in their own madly eccentric ways, are destined to meet and fall for one another as only radical opposites do in the movies. Last Life, in its freaky, pan-Asian pop-cinema way, is an endearing, tonally complex tale of love, sibling rivalry and the clumsy ways in which people try to rise above grievous loss with, it goes without saying, some brutal yakuza business wedged in between.
The film opens with a downright zany shot of two feet hanging from the ceiling in that blue-tinged, antiseptic apartment. Its occupant, Kenji, is a shy, mild-mannered expatriate Japanese librarian, played by the impassive, muscled superstar Tadanobu Asano, whos also currently appearing as Takeshi Kitanos ronin adversary in The Blind Swordsman: Zatôichi. This could be me three hours from now, the still-unseen owner of the feet intones in voice-over, then begins philosophizing calmly about his reasons for wanting to end it all, among which the prospect of no more e-mail figures prominently. The camera pans slowly around his apartment, with its orderly shelves of dishes and shirts impeccably folded in closets, and then we see Kenji, slipping a noose around his neck and testing it for fit while carefully positioning a Post-it marked This is bliss for maximum visibility. This is a man who clearly wouldnt recognize bliss if it punched him on the nose, and we arent sure whether to be entertained or horrified by him. Then the door buzzer rudely interrupts, and Kenjis loudmouthed brother (Yutaka Matsushige) barges in and inquires offhandedly, Hanging yourself this time? and makes himself at home while Kenji serves drinks.
An expert in pushing our reactions in unexpected directions, Ratanaruang quickly cuts away to a Bangkok bar whose pretty young hostesses, one of whom is glued to Kenjis brother, are kitted out in school uniforms or bunny outfits. Minimal hints are dropped that Kenji, in a former life, had a more colorful occupation than the one he has now, shelving books in a Japanese-language library, and that there is heavy unresolved stuff between him and his brother: His most treasured possession is a childrens book called The Last Lizard on Earth, and the gun he keeps inside a teddy bear will come in handy when a shootout lays waste to the unruffled calm of his home. It seems that, for Kenji, theres no escaping his life, or his methodical efforts to end it. When next we see him, hes crouched on a bridge, ready to jump, but hes interrupted yet again, this time by a car crash involving the B-girls we met earlier, Nid (Laila Boonyasak) and her sister Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), whove just been having a big fight over Kenjis brother. Pretty soon, Kenji winds up in Nois ratty house, at once appalled and attracted by the vital disarray that is her natural state.
Like Ratanaruangs other offbeat comedies, two of which, 6IXTYNIN9 (1999) and Mon-rak Transistor (2001), have become favorites on the international festival circuit, Last Life is plotted by frank contrivance and blithe excursions into magical realism, not to mention liberal helpings of the chortling toilet humor thats de rigueur in certain quarters of the Asian film scene. Much of the time Ratanaruang seems to be amusing himself and, almost as an afterthought, us by noodling merrily around the nether regions of his imagination. At one point, Nois house tidies itself up à la Mary Poppins papers flutter around, stuff flies into drawers. The scene is funny, but also lyrical, as the street-smart young woman registers a childlike delight. Later, in a scene as tender as it is off the wall, Noi casually lays her head on Kenjis lap, to his evident discomfort. They both sleep, and when Kenji wakes up, its Nid, in her now-bloodied school uniform, whos deep in slumber across his knees, and hes had an inconvenient orgasm.
Ratanaruang shifts moods, genres and realities with the nonchalant ease of a juggler, and though hes unabashedly showing off, and though Im not at all sure what all of this adds up to, somehow it comes together beautifully. Theres nothing self-consciously postmodern about his films. They emanate from the instincts of a generation of filmmakers who take fluid boundaries, whether aesthetic, cultural, linguistic or geographic, completely for granted, and who must be credited to a large degree with the recent renaissance of Asian film in the face of local markets flooded with Hollywood blockbusters. Ratanaruang cant do without his giddy yakuza bloodbaths; one way or another, all his movies are about little people falling prey to vicious gangsters and cops. But Last Life is dreamier and more soulful, more visually and emotionally worldly, than his previous work in part, no doubt, because hes working with Christopher Doyle, the Aussie cinematographer-poet of Asian film most famous for his long-standing collaboration with Wong Kar-wai.
Doyle and Ratanaruang have said that, in making Last Life, they explicitly wanted to avoid aping Wong Kar-wai. That theyve failed is no disgrace. I can think of worse models for a romantic comedy than the exquisite Chungking Express, whose swoony, impressionistic rendering of an evanescent encounter between a pent-up cop and an impulsive fast-food worker informs Ratanaruangs movie at every turn: Doyle is a genius who can conjure wistful erotic promise from a slight breeze ruffling a red curtain. Noi and Kenji may be opposites shes a free spirit and a pragmatist, hes inscrutable almost to the point of stereotype. But theyre both willing refugees shes learning Japanese in preparation to emigrate to Japan, while he came to Bangkok in the futile hope of escaping a shadowy past. Their love is a wacky form of cultural and emotional exchange.
But if Ratanaruang is a sentimentalist, he also has an instinctive need to pull the rug out from under his tenderest moments. Like so many young-Turk filmmakers, he cant tolerate a unitary emotional response. When Kenji, tentatively venturing into the world of feelings, asks Noi whether she misses her sister, she tells him, Sometimes, and asks him whether he misses his brother. Not really, he says, to which she replies, Did you fart? Its a joke, but its also an inquiry into whether hes capable yet of letting himself go.
Ratanaruang has gone on record describing himself as sick and kinky. So he is, but hes also a romantic with an acute feel for the inseparability of tragedy and comedy. Near the end of Last Life in the Universe, Kenji, farting beautifully at last and simmering with desire to follow his love to Japan, finds himself cornered in a bathroom, under siege once more from gangsters who may or may not know hes there. Trying to remain silent, Kenji cant help but be true to his nature. Flushing is involved.
LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE | Directed by PEN-EK RATANARUANG | Written by PRABDA YOON and RATANARUANG | Produced by NONZEE NIMIBUTR, DUANGKAMOL LIMCHAROEN and WOUTER BARENDRECHT Released by Palm Pictures | At the Nuart
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