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 can’t tell whether it’s 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, who’s also currently appearing as Takeshi Kitano’s 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 wouldn’t recognize bliss if it punched him on the nose, and we aren’t sure whether to be entertained or horrified by him. Then the door buzzer rudely interrupts, and Kenji’s 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 Kenji’s 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 children’s 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, there’s no escaping his life, or his methodical efforts to end it. When next we see him, he’s crouched on a bridge, ready to jump, but he’s 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), who’ve just been having a big fight over Kenji’s brother. Pretty soon, Kenji winds up in Noi’s ratty house, at once appalled and attracted by the vital disarray that is her natural state.
Like Ratanaruang’s 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 that’s 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, Noi’s 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 Kenji’s lap, to his evident discomfort. They both sleep, and when Kenji wakes up, it’s Nid, in her now-bloodied school uniform, who’s deep in slumber across his knees, and he’s had an inconvenient orgasm.
Ratanaruang shifts moods, genres and realities with the nonchalant ease of a juggler, and though he’s unabashedly showing off, and though I’m not at all sure what all of this adds up to, somehow it comes together beautifully. There’s 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 can’t 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 he’s 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 they’ve 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 Ratanaruang’s 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 — she’s a free spirit and a pragmatist, he’s inscrutable almost to the point of stereotype. But they’re both willing refugees — she’s 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 can’t 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?” It’s a joke, but it’s also an inquiry into whether he’s capable yet of letting himself go.
Ratanaruang has gone on record describing himself as “sick and kinky.” So he is, but he’s 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 he’s there. Trying to remain silent, Kenji can’t 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