Opposites attract? Well, not really. The basis of most relationships is some kind of commonality, but it certainly helps if your significant other can provide some balance- the workaholic can keep their lazy spouse from flagging, the lazy can make the workaholic slow down, and so forth. The Thai film Last life in the Universe (2003) explores the notions of opposites and the magnetism that draws people together. It is a beautifully bittersweet tale about the lonely no longer being alone.
As a Japanese librarian living in Bangkok, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano- Taboo, Bright Future, Vital, Ichi the Killer) lives a very meticulously ordered life. His apartment is clinically clean and obsessedly arranged. Kenji entertains thoughts of suicide and imagines different ways to end his life, though he isn't sure exactly why. It isn't from hopelessness. It isn't because of money. He likens ending his life to taking a nap, ending the monotony of one existence, and waking up refreshed for another life.
One suicide attempt is aborted when his wild, yakuza brother bursts into his life. His brother is in trouble, on the run, and their relationship implies it is a situation Kenji is familiar with. Another chance of fate finds Kenji contemplating jumping off a highway overpass, but this too is interrupted and leads him to Nio (Sinitta Boonysak).
In terms of their lifestyle, the two could not be more different. Nio's house in the country is a ramshackle mess of clutter, dirt, debris, and even her car, a convertible VW Bug, could be best described as half white/half rust. But circumstances, tragedy, and reckless siblings draw the two together. Kenji speaks very little Thai. Noi speaks very little Japanese. And each knows even less English, so they communicate in fragments. Both are at a place where they need to escape their lives. At first for Kenji, the thought of suicide was the answer. But Noi makes life seem a less futile, and they share a deep connection that cannot be denied.
Having seen director Pen-ek Tatanaruang's black comic crime film 6ixtynin9, I was not prepared for the artful, understated , and meditatively paced tone, look, and general feel he would deliver in Last Life in the Universe. It is a bit like if you found out Pulp Fiction and L'Aventura were directed by the same person. I cannot help but assume that this is largely due to his collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Chunking Express, Hero, 2046), because the films visual framing and emphasis on the emotional power of objects clearly has a lot to do with Doyle's signature style. In the DVD commentary Doyle stresses that the film was a collaborative effort, and regardless of who brought the most to the table, this film definitely elevates Pen-ek Tatanaruang as a potentially great film maker.
I cannot emphasize enough how poetic this film is. From the first frame to the last, it is such a subdued and steady example of how a simple perfect image can convey more than pages of rambling dialogue. The actors, too, do a great job with their stilted conversations and manage to give a great sense of their characters distinct personalities without any grandstanding. This film does play out at a very measured pace- if you are open to such artful exercise, then it will lull you into the film's dreamy weightlessness, if you aren't, you'll be yawning and nodding off. Last Life in the Universe is in a very magical realist vein, from Kenji's imagined suicides to Noi visualizing her apartment being magically cleaned, but it also switches into some comic gears with some bumbling hitmen (featuring a cameo by director Takashi Miike- not the only Japanese film icon cameo in the film either). In terms of cinematic tales about the engaging warmth, fear, and absurdity of love, it doesn't get much better
The DVD: Palm Pictures.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Christopher Doyle's cinematography is captured quite well in this transfer. The film has a very soft and desaturated look which adds to its very dreamy feeling. The color scheme is very cool and pale, nearly monochrome. Again, the film was shot with an intended softness, so in terms of sharpness, it is about as sharp as it is supposed to be. The print appears fairly clean. No glaring technical quirks other than a scene or two where the contrast levels could be deepened and grain levels lessened.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo. Optional English subtitles. The dialogue is a fairly even mix of Thai, Japanese, and some English. The film is so light on audio, I didn't really see much difference between the two tracks. The surround track is almost entirely centered, which is understandable, because there just isn't a whole lot of atmospherics or grand scoring to mix. Again, it is style of the film, simple, subtle, and minimal.
Extras: Trailer and Palm Previews.— Interview with director Pen-ek Tatanaruang (19:43).— "The Art of Christopher Doyle" A great gallery collection of collage/photo/text/ paintings Doyle made from the film.— Commentary by cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Interviews and the rumor mill have, over the years, pegged Doyle as something of a wildman. Well, here he is very soft spoken, articulate, and intelligent as he discusses making the film. This is no lightweight track but a very good artistically leaning monologue of the films intent, mood, and the choices they made during the film making process. As a photographer myself, not just a film fan, I have enjoyed his work, and to hear him discuss it... well, it is by far one of the best commentary tracks I've run across.
Conclusion: A wonderful, melancholy, disarmingly sweet and surreal film. It completely won me over. An excellent round of extras and good image/sound presentation really puts this one over, making it a very highly recommend purchase film for foreign film freaks looking for a little poetry.