“Last Life in the Universe” has been quietly gathering acclaim on the festival circuits for some time now, and given that its cinematography is by Christopher Doyle (best known for his work on “Hero” and “In the Mood for Love”), I was very keen to catch it on the big screen. The Japanese/Thai production also features an excellent cast, with a mixture of first time Thai actresses and some of the more prominent faces in Japanese cult cinema. Thankfully, I was not disappointed, and “Last Life in the Universe” proved to be one of the most beautiful and moving films I have seen for some time.
Given the title, it’s quite obvious that this is a melancholy piece. The plot follows Kenji (Tadanobu Asano, recently in “Zatoichi”), a decidedly odd Japanese librarian living in Bangkok who harbors suicidal fantasies. After a series of strange events that cumulate in a tragic accident, his path joins with that of Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), a young Thai woman. The two travel to her dilapidated rural home near the sea, where they hide out and gradually come to depend on each other. After some initial communication difficulties and clashes of personality, the two form a gentle bond that is threatened as the consequences of past events begin to intrude.
The above synopsis may make viewers fear they will be getting a Hollywood-style “culture clash” comedy. Luckily, that’s not the case, as director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (who also directed the excellent “Monrak Transistor”) takes a different route, bringing the two protagonists together through their moods and small gestures, gradually giving insights into their psyches and their growing feelings for each other. Their differences are quietly played upon rather than exploited for conflict. All of this is done skillfully but slowly, and it’s fair to say that the film drifts along rather than being driven by narrative. However, this is not to the film’s detriment, as Pen-Ek succeeds in creating a poetic mood piece that has a wonderfully ambient and dream-like atmosphere.
Having worked previously as an art director, Pen-Ek has a fantastic eye for detail and shot composition, and the end result is a film with a truly beautiful and fascinating look. Particularly interesting is the way he uses a number of subtle visual devices to reflect the characters’ personalities and changing emotions. This is of course helped greatly by Christopher Doyle, whose muted yet rich color palette really brings the film to life, as well as accentuating the surreal atmosphere. Also worth noting is the excellent soundtrack by Hualongpong Riddim, which has a real hypnotic quality and definitely adds to the overall feel of the film.
For some viewers, the downside of all this is that the majority of “Last Life in the Universe” is given over to character development and exploration. There are a couple of scenes of gunplay, though the general lack of action and a driving narrative may make the film feel dull. This is a great shame, as although “Last Life in the Universe” is undeniably an art house film, it’s by no means obtuse or humorless, and has much to offer those who are willing to make the effort. Personally, I appreciated the way the film managed to avoid degenerating into either trite romantic comedy or simple nihilism, as filmmakers often do when handling themes like these.
The acting in the film is of a very high standard, and both leads are wholly convincing. Tadanobu Asano is particularly good in a role that could easily have alienated the audience through its quiet eccentricity. What may attract some viewers is the supporting cast, which includes Riki Takeuchi (“Battle Royale 2″), Yukata Matsushige (“Ring”), Sakichi Sato (who wrote “Ichi the Killer”) and cult director Takashi Miike (“Shinjuku Triad Society”). Their roles are all well played and are nicely timed in terms of keeping the minimal plot moving. There are also a number of film references for Asian film fans, most notably a rather odd shot of the poster for “Ichi the Killer”.
Overall, I would rate “Last Life in the Universe” as one of the best and most beautiful Asian films of the last few years. Although slowly paced, it offers an atmospheric, thoughtful and surprisingly moving alternative to the usual “culture clash” films. If possible, catch it on the big screen to get the full benefit of the stunning visuals.
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (director) / Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Prabda Yoon (screenplay)
CAST: Tadanobu Asano …. Kenji
Sinitta Boonyasak …. Noi
Laila Boonyasak …. Nid
Yutaka Matsushige …. Yukio
Riki Takeuchi …. Takashi