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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Last Life in the Universe  



 

Last Life in the Universe

Reviewed by 1. Soh Yun-Huei 2. Drakula 3. Sinnerman 4. Adrian Sim

Thai Title: Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan
Director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Miike Takashi
Genre: Comedy, drama romance
Country: Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand
Language: Thai, Japanese & English dialogue

Duration: 108mins

1. Review by Soh Yun-Huei
Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

Following rapidly on the heels of that wondrous movie about love, loss and alienation (that's Lost In Translation for those who are as yet unconverted), is Thai writer-director Pen-Ek Ratanaraung's own take on almost exact issues, Last Life In The Universe. Instead of Japan, however, Last Life in the Universe is based in Thailand, although the lead actor is Japanese, and the film is quite a bit more abstract than the simple Lost In Translation.

Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is an obsessively neat Japanese man who is living on his own in Bangkok, and earning a living by being a librarian at the Japanese Cultural Centre. A look through his house would reveal exactly how meticulous Kenji is -- all his belongings are organized by size, shape, colour, day to be worn, and so on. Kenji has also been contemplating suicide for some time, and fantasizing about what his death would be like. His orderly life is thrown into disarray when his estranged Yakuza brother turns up at his doorstep, seemingly on the run from his big boss. However, that's far from the only incident that will shake up Kenji's life.

An unfortunate series of events leads Kenji to become acquainted with a woman called Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), who's basically his antithesis. She's disorganized, messy, and does not worry about the finer details, and when Kenji ends up at her beachside house, his obsessive-compulsive nature kicks in and he offers to tidy up the place. Gradually, a romance develops between Kenji and Noi, despite their differences and a language barrier.

Much of Last Life in the Universe deals with the romance that forms between Kenji and Nid, who are both loners not used to reaching out to others. Perhaps due to the characters' quirks, Pen-Ek has taken a very detached approach in his direction, almost similar to Takeshi Kitano's films. It's an interesting directorial style for a romance, but it left me somewhat too detached and didn't lead me to really care about the outcome of the leads. Pen-Ek also delves briefly into the surreal, and it could prove confusing to viewers expecting a straight love story.

However, the film does score some successes -- Kenji and Noi do not speak each other's languages, so they turn to a fractured English to communicate, and Pen-Ek manages to flesh out the difficulties that the situation brings about. Pen-Ek also manages to confound the viewers' expectations about Kenji, gradually revealing more details about his background that will definitely be surprising. The two lead actors are also pretty convincing in their roles, and with a lack of much dialogue, actually turn in pretty nuanced performances.

Last Life in the Universe truly shines in its technical aspects -- the cinematography by Christopher Doyle is as always excellent, with meticulously lit and composed shots and a very effective use of colour (or in this case a lack of colour). Above all else Last Life in the Universe is a visual treat. The soundtrack is also excellent, making use of ambient electronica throughout much of the film, but the movie is also not afraid of simply letting silence do its work. Last Life in the Universe is not going to be a film that appeals to many viewers -- the storyline and pace will likely be too deliberate, but it does have its merits, and is certainly one of the best-looking Asian films of the year.

Final Word: A brilliant technical film, but unlike Lost In Translation, the treatment of the storyline in the film left me cold.

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2. Review by Drakula

Managed to revisit Last Life in the Universe on DVD, which made me realize how much I criminally overlooked this film when it was first released. Perhaps I was in a different state of mind when I first saw it, now seeing it again, it didn't make any more sense than it first did when I saw it, but I came out feeling so much more satisfied than most of the films I saw this year. It works best as a DVD movie for me I guess, especially on lonely nights where thoughts overrun and sleep is scarce, the calming glow of the movie is especially comforting and soothing.

The music and photography worked as a balm for me, but that is not all that made me re-love this film. For some reason, the music sounds to me like waves on the ears, making me think of a person in a placid swimming pool, where all is calm. Yet when you submerge yourself underwater and when you come back up again, the experience is so different you seem to have emerged into a different world. Where underwater the outside world is entirely muffled out, only traces of what we can usually hear seep into our ears, the peaceful allure is enticing, but we cannot stay there for long unless we lose our breath forever. When you come up for air, which is a necessity, life's banal and blaring sounds attack your ears again and you're forced into it, forced to hear it, forced to participate in it. The incessant beeping of an alarm, the buzzing of a doorbell. Never can we find peace in our world, unless we submerge ourselves in death, and the line between life and death is so abstract, that being in a swimming pool we experience both the peace and the banal, sometimes a split second out of the other.

At the same time, death and life are not extreme ends of each other. Rather, life encompasses death in its entirety, and vice versa. The dead person becomes a part of us, in the same way as we become part of the dead person when the person dies. Life and death aren't seen as two separate beings as much as they are one and interchangeable. As the characters in the film teeter in the brink of existence they experience both life and death at the same time, with Nid and Noi fusing into each other unpredictably and Kenji living out his suicidal fantasies in his head yet not being able to die at the same time, is he dead in his mind already, and if so doing, is he dead?

And I can't help but sigh at the beauty in which these two (or three?) characters encounter each other. They meet each other at the brink of their lives, just as they are going to lose it, and their lives coalesce and separate and intertwine with each other again, in the hands of fate, they are never one and alone, and yet they are separate identities merged into one.

Both characters yearn for resolution, for a place to take them out of the uncertain limbo they are in. Kenji longs for the resolve (or so he thinks in the beginning of the film) of death and probably the reason he arrived in Thailand from Japan, and Noi wants to go to Japan to escape having to face the death of her sister and her uneasy existence after that. Yet in the film, there is no resolution or ultimate. Life and death are presented as equally fragile, as simply as life can be destroyed like how Nid died out of a complete freak accident, death can also be discarded away like how Kenji never manages to die. As such they are forced into an existence that has no resolution or comfort, in which the only comfort they can find is with each other. Noi ultimately is left alone in the airport waiting room, and Kenji is left in the police station, and as such, Kenji can only resolve this whole tale in his mind, in a fantasy in which he rejoins Noi in Japan. It is a sweet and heartwarming fantasy, but yet some might argue that it still remains a fantasy and that in reality, the ending is ultimately depressing.

But this brings into the question of the importance of reality in this whole equation. To think of this film logically or mathematically will probably drive anyone nuts, for it is a film that defies any logic or truth. What is truth if life and death aren't at opposites? In the same way, how does reality get the upper-hand over fantasy when in fantasy, Kenji has already died twice, and has a happy ending in the end? In any case, does all these even matter when one is in between the line that separates the cool placid waters and the outside world?

In the same right I love that the movie doesn't attempt to explain anything. In any case, what reason do you need to die? If a person can die as suddenly and inexplicably as when shot by his best friend, why can't you take your life in your own hands? What reason does anyone need to meet, or in any case, fall in love, then get separated again? What reason do you need to make an abstract, surreal, and half-completed film? The room to which it allows the audience to complete the film makes it attractive for its unfinished quality. It does not provide anything to be fully satisfying, it does not even provide controversy for one to think about.

Watching this film again, to me, is like plunging into the state of mind of the film again. The consciousness akin to being in a swimming pool, amidst the calm we have two extremes fused into each other, working off each other, and most importantly we can never go into any of the two completely, just teetering on the edge of both ends hoping for fate to deliver someone that comes from the same position for our lives to coalesce.

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3. Review by Sinnerman
Rating: *** ½ out of ****

Mystery of the "clicks"....solved
Agree with some of you that the "last lizard..." children's story was a nice addition to this movie. Its streamlined simplicity brought with it a touch of charm and it complements the slightly whimsical feel of this flick. No surprises why that hard cover fairytale had such a strong hold on that Japanese hygiene freak then. And most interesting of note to me and me alone, is that the mysterious sound bugging me for years now, a sound that I could not quite put a finger on since forever, has been solved. It's the "clicking" echoes of a common house gecko. Silly me.

Atomic reminiscence
Fascinating, for out of sheer coincidence, two movies in recent days reminded me of how brilliantly conceived and delivered The Sweet Hereafter was. 21 Grams' repeated focus on the father and his two daughters' end reminded me of that busload of school children plunging into the thinly frozen lake. Now the lizard story book motif is somewhat reminiscent of the Piped Piper rendition by Sarah Polley throughout that wintry Canadian heart warmer (heh). Gawd, gotta go dig for that flick again already....Ok, back to this flick.

The Film Is....Nice
I do not deny that I was mesmerized by the blissful union of this flick's sights and sound. The enchantment hexed unto me was a nice mellow sensation, which led my willing heart drifting to wherever it wanted. Alas, the magic was finally broken by film's end, when I realized its points (if any) may be too abstract for my unraveling.

Do Re Mi's
The tinkling music of this film is still ringing in my ears. The score was appropriately soothing and its sustained note of chilled ambience was very hypnotic. It also articulated the sensation of cinematic foreplay in that it teased me successfully on the film's tightly wound sexual/ narrative tension. The protagonists' feeling of hopeful joy and hinted solemnity was also fleshed out very nicely by this sparse yet spellbinding music. Me liked.

Eye Candies
The sights (courtesy of one intuitive visual genius that is Chris Doyle) is no less beautifully rendered than its aforementioned sound delights. There is an aesthetic cleanliness about the film's cinematography. Especially fascinating to me are the indoor shots. Never intrusive or too spaced out, I was contented with the gentle observation of the beings inhabiting its living spaces from wherever the cameras were parked. It hence afforded me a measure of angelic grace as I "watched" these cryptic lives unfolding before me. This is a very well shot film.

But can too much of a good thing turn out to be a bad thing?
Depends. The strong visual signature imprinted by Doyle evoked a familiar film sense of Wong Kar Wai in this quirky Thai flick. Homage though we may lovingly call it, this also cast an enveloping Wong Kar Wai shadow on Last Life... I felt like I am re-watching a Chungking Express/ Happy Together hybrid. Such, depending on your leanings in the film appreciation spectrum (style vs. substance), you either respond to this film or you don't. For me, I have never really place style as an overriding judgement criterion for the films I love. Last Life... (as well as the very best Wong Kar Wai's out there) will thus only ever generate a qualified admiration and tempered liking from me. I can never honestly love'em. Its no fault of the movie really, for it too has its merits (as described in this post already). Just not the ones which will steal my wild invested heart. Nevertheless, I strongly urge all Wong Kar Wai fans to go catch this film. I have a feeling you will love it to bits.

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4. Analysis by Adrian Sim

To help myself understand Last Life in the Universe, I broke down the film into the following scenarios:

1st scenario:
Happens at the beginning where Kenji is found by the security guard to be hanging from the ceiling. He dies. End of story.

2nd scenario:
This scenario stems from the fact that Kenji survives his 1st suicide attempt. However, he is killed by an assassin later in his apartment with his brother. The ingenious use of blackout leads to dual outcomes, i.e., either Kenji is killed (2nd scenario) or the assassin is killed, which leads us to the 3rd scenario.

3rd scenario:
This scenario arises if Kenji survives the assassination attempt. However, he kills himself by jumping into the sea (explaining the scene where he was in the water) just before he is about to get a glimpse of Nid in the 4th scenario.

4th scenario:
Kenji doesn't jump into the sea. He meets Noi, whose sister Nid, is killed in the accident.

4th scenario, 1st outcome:
Noi successfully leaves for Osaka. She gets a stable job as a waitress. Kenji pays her a surprise visit one day at her home.

4th scenario, 2nd outcome:
Noi waits in vain at the airport for Kenji and misses her flight (Note: End credits roll on the TV screen beside her as she sits in the boarding gallery). Unknown to her, Kenji has been arrested for the "murders" committed in his apartment.

4th scenario, 3rd outcome:
Noi waits in vain at the airport for Kenji and misses her flight (Note: End credits roll on the TV screen beside her as she sits in the boarding gallery). Kenji falls to his death from the toilet window while trying to escape from the Japanese killers.

5th scenario:
Kenji meets Nid instead of Noi.

Another interpretation maybe that the scene where Nid comes in is just a supernatural element rather than the 5th scenario. After all, the director has embellished the film with a lot of spooky details like the creaking of the cupboard, the creepy ambient, the haunted-looking house, the flying books...

I think a tree diagram would best explain the film. All you film aficionados, let me know if you can break down the film further...I suspect there are more possibilities I may have missed.