Kenji (Asano Tadanobu, "Zatoichi," "Ichi the killer") is a Japanese librarian living in Bangkok with two behavioral abnormalities - he's a compulsive neat freak who is obsessed with the idea of suicide - and one dark secret. When he attempts to jump off a bridge, he is instead whisked off to the flip side of his universe by Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) in her battered white VW bug. Noi's filthy beach side home will house the culmination of Kenji's suicide note ('Life is bliss') as he experiences the "Last Life in the Universe."
Thai cowriter (with Prabda Yoon)/Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang ("Monrak Transistor") has crafted an exquisite, dreamy romance that drifts among different time periods, locations and maybe even life and death itself. While reminiscent of films as diverse as "Harold and Maude" "Three Women" and "The Double Life of Veronique" , "Last Life in the Universe" nonetheless is clearly the unique vision of a world class filmmaker.
We first meet Kenji hanging from a noose (suggesting one possibility that all that comes later could be an afterlife experience), before seeing him at work, observing a schoolgirl. That same girl, Nid (Laila Boonyasak), is sacrificed, maybe trying to save Kenji, and becomes the connection between him and her older sister Noi (at film's midpoint, they even briefly become become interchangeable). During lazy days at Noi's home, Thai and Japanese cooking and Japanese and English conversation take place while Kenji works his magic on the home Noi will soon be leaving, ironically for Kenji's birthplace of Osaka. An abusive ex-boyfriend of Noi's wants Kenji dead, but is dealt with by the Yakuza gang (led by "Audition" and "Ichi the Killer" director Takashi Miike) somehow connected to Kenji, who sports the telltale tattooed back of the Japanese gangsters.
Kenji and Noi's unconsummated love affair affects each deeply, as Pen-ek Ratanaruang deftly conveys each's continuing influence of the other after they part ways. The dialogue is full of subtle, deadpan humor with lines like 'tomorrow we'll do the laundry' or Kenji explaining that he doesn't want to return to his apartment because of the smell of two dead bodies having both literal and humorous connotations.
Pen-ek Ratanaruang not only balances his constantly shifting moods, but gets performances that perfectly blend his film's various tones. Asano Tadanobu's Kenji is a great romantic hero, both dark and light, sexy without relinquishing his inner nerd. Sinitta Boonyasak's tart, pot-smoking Noi is the perfect match for the enigmatic neat freak. Miike's Mr. Tajima is hilarious just because he is not trying to be.
The great director of photography Christopher Doyle, HKSC ("In the Mood for Love," "The Quiet American," shamefully never nominated by the Academy) delivers beautiful imagery, creating art in the way he frames a blooming cactus with a shaving mirror. Production Designer Saksiri Chuntarangsri defines the different worlds of the two main characters, foreshadowing Kenji's shift into Noi's world with the Escher "Day and Night" print in his living room while also commenting upon Kenji's need for mathematical order (Doyle takes this one step further by doubling the image with the reflection of a neighboring apartment block casting its shadow on the print's glass covering.) Music by Small Room and Hualampong Riddim is low key but entrancing. Also notable is the costuming by Sombatsara Teerasaroch, who puts Noi into a sexy chartreuse shift which reflects her seaside lifestyle while Kenji is elegantly outfitted in beautifully draped shirts and pants.
"Last Life in the Universe" isn't a film for those who insist on linear storytelling, but the adventurous cinema goer will be amply rewarded. "Life" is indeed bliss.
Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a suicidal, expatriated Japanese librarian living and working in Bangkok Thailand. One day, while doing his job at the Japan Cultural Center, he becomes fascinated by a pretty Thai schoolgirl but she disappears before he can find out about her. In his search for the girl he meets her older sister, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), who is the slovenly, pot smoking opposite to his fanatically neatnick personality. The romance that sparks between them, though, will take some unexpected turns in “Last Life in the Universe.”
Thai filmmaker Pen-ek Ratanaruang, with co-scripter Prabda Yoon, has created a stranger in a strange land love story that comes in three languages and is both comic and dramatic in temperament. When we first meet Kenji he is participating in his favorite hobby – attempted suicide. As he tries to hang himself, he is, literally, saved by the bell. (This theme of suicide interruptus is carried throughout the film, providing one of the many comedic notes in “Last Life….”) We are given a briefly glimpsed view of his tattoo-covered back and realize that there is much more to the man than the outwardly mild-mannered, anal-retentive obsessive he appears to be.
Noi has her share of problems, not the least of which is an abusive boyfriend/pimp who beats her mercilessly, until Kenji intervenes. For reasons unclear at first, he asks Noi if he can stay with her. It’s not a worry for her as it isn’t her place and she is leaving for Japan soon anyway. He walks into what can only be termed a disaster area and his cleanly ways soon puts the place in order – done with a touch of CGI animation.
“Last Life in the Universe” is not an easy film to keep up with. Japanese, Thai and English are spoke in pretty equal measures making changes in language a problem for short attention people, the kind that watch MTV. The main thing to remember is that it is not so much the story but the moods and development of the characters as the past unfolds to show who Kenji is.
Christopher Doyle, an Australian lenser who has made a significant impact in Pacific Basin films like “In the Mood For Love,” “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit Proof Fences,” turns his experienced eye to the odd life of Kenji and helps attain a unique perspective. Static shots for extended periods of time reminded me of Gordon Willis’s best work with Woody Allen. Speaking of which, Noi drives an old Volkswagen Beetle convertible and is a quirky enough character to put me in mind of Allen’s “Annie Hall.”
Tadanobu Asano gives a measured and full bodied performance as the outwardly meek Kenji that shows the actor’s versatility. In very different performances Asano also appeared as a psycho renegade yakuza killer in “Ichi the Killer” and a noble, sword-for-hire Samurai in Takeshi Kitano’s “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi.” He creates a different character each time and his Kenji is a complex enigma. Sinitta Boonyasak, as Noi, plays well off of the not-as-he-seems Kenji and, as we get to know her, we realize that she needs him as much as he needs her.
The supporting cast does well enough and acclaimed Japanese director Takashi Miike makes an appearance as the tough yakuza boss in Bangkok on a deadly mission. The henchmen accompanying the gang lord provide another dimension of the humor in “Last Life….”
Pen-ek Ratanaruang may not become a household name in the US any time soon but if you are serious about movies his latest is worth the look. I give it a B.
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