Fifties sci-fi? A tacky Eighties comedy? Wrong! Judge Jesse Ataide says it's actually a quiet and meditative Thai film.
"This is bliss."
How is one supposed to describe the appeal of a film like Last Life in the Universe? A film so delicate, so dreamlike and ethereal in nature seems to defy all attempts to translate its magic into writing, as if the mere act of giving it some kind of written validation will cause it to shrivel up and disappear like a hallucination or dream. It's not an easy film to review, but it's one that's impossible to forget.
Facts of the Case
Kenji (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer) is a mild-mannered and unassuming young man with an unconventional fixation: plotting his own suicide. From the first shots of the film, which depict one of Kenji's projected suicide attempts by strangulation, it is clear that Kenji leads an obsessively organized, monotonous and emotionless life, and is desperate to find a way out.
After catching a glimpse of a girl in a school uniform at the library where he works, he feels himself drawn to this elusive figure, and the children's book she had been looking through while visiting the library. That night, as he ponders jumping off of a busy bridge, he catches sight of her—just in time to witness her tragic death. Through this horrific event he meets Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), the girl's older sister. A tentative, uneasy relationship begins to develop as they try to console their silent grief and attempt to break the sense of despair and isolation gripping their respective lives.
During an interview provided in the extras menu, director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Transistor Love Story) makes Last Life in the Universe sound like an off-the-cuff collaboration between a group of friends and film artists. The film they eventually created, however, bears no indication of being spontaneous or impromptu in any way. Rather, the film's deliberate pace, wistful tone, and exquisitely realized cinematography appear to be the fruits of several talented filmmakers working at the top of their games.
In an extremely subtle way, Last Life in the Universe is a staggeringly ambitious film. Human isolation is not a new subject in cinema (think of Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpieces L'Avventura and L'Eclisse), but it's an extremely difficult concept to translate into visual terms. Ratanaruang and master cinematographer Christopher Doyle certainly had their work cut out for them with this film, and they end up approaching the material the same way Antonioni once did: depicting the languishing internal states of the main characters through the environments they inhabit. Take, for example, the opening scenes of the film. Set in Kenji's immaculate apartment, its color scheme of sterile grays and whites, the neatly stacked books lined up on symmetrical shelving, and the methodically arranged refrigerator all reek of loneliness and tightly-contained despair. In this compartmentalized hell, it's no wonder Kenji sees a noose around his neck as the only way to discover the bliss eluding him.
A sense of overwhelming melancholy drives the entire film. Kenji is purposely kept an ambiguous figure, which makes his fascination with suicide all the more perplexing. Quiet and introspective, he possesses an undeniable charisma; despite letting himself be pushed around, he gives the impression of being capable of effortlessly inflicting pain on anybody who gets in his way. These bizarre contradictions make Kenji a mysterious and extremely sympathetic character, which is perhaps the reason why his predicament becomes so engrossing and poignant as the film progresses.
After experiencing the death of the object of his affection, Kenji temporarily breaks out of his isolated lethargy. Conversely, the loud and flamboyant Noi is forced to stop for a moment and re-evaluate her empty lifestyle after the loss of her sister. Most of the film takes place inside the tiny margin where their personalities and grief overlap—the film explores both characters' struggles to find some common ground despite the barriers of emotional expression, different lifestyle choices, and language.
This is all linked back to their environment when Kenji temporarily takes up residence at Noi's dilapidated family home, where she had been living by herself. Once a large, spacious, and beautiful dwelling, Noi has let the house and the grounds surrounding it fall into disrepair. This transformation has caused the house to become as unfamiliar to Noi as it is to Kenji, allowing it to function as an alien terrain for them to interact in as equals. It becomes a symbol for the unspoken ways in which Kenji and Noi begin to help each other grieve and heal: Cleaning and organizing the messy home gives Kenji a new sense a purpose and accomplishment; for Noi, it forces her to face and exorcise the ghosts of her past and goads her to get her chaotic life back on track before she embarks on a new phase in her life.
The home weaves a slightly surreal and hypnotic web around Kenji and Noi that is brutally broken by the lurking outside world. Noi's loud, abusive boyfriend is the first to break the spell, and an unexpected storyline involving a trio of goons (appropriately headed up by Takashi Miike, director of violent classics like Ichi the Killer and Gozu) that reappear out of Kenji's past. This brutally disrupts the dreamlike flow of Kenji and Noi's developing relationship, setting up the film's striking—but very ambiguous—conclusion.
Christopher Doyle has established himself as perhaps the world's greatest working cinematographer through his eight collaborations with Wong Kar-Wai and Zhang Yimou's Hero, and is clearly proud of his work on this film. His commentary track on this disc is extremely engaging, informative, and articulate—not only about the visual style he gave this film, but also when dissecting the film's underlying purpose and themes. Throughout the entire track Doyle demonstrates how meticulously he and his collaborators went about turning the film's visual landscapes into the third "character" in the film, and how intricately the characters' relationships and ultimate fates are intertwined with the physical environments they inhabit. If you have any interest in learning how important the visual elements and underlying style of a film are in shaping a viewer's conception and interpretation of a film, you should give this highly informative commentary track a listen.
Palm Pictures thankfully does Doyle's work justice with this widescreen transfer. At times the image gets slightly blurry, but it is difficult to tell if this is intentional or not. But overall this reviewer has very few complaints regarding the visual presentation of this film. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is certainly acceptable, which is a good thing considering how effectively music and sounds contribute to the general mood and atmosphere of the film. But I'm rather confused at the inclusion of a 5.1 surround sound mix, since the surrounds are used so minimally. But such complaints are minor and do not detract from one's enjoyment of the film.
The main extra provided on this disc is the commentary track by Christopher Doyle discussed above. But also included is an informative interview with director Pen-ek Ratanaruang that nicely compliments the information given in the commentary. There is also a really nice feature of original artwork by Christopher Doyle, including stills taken during filming and incorporated into elaborate collages. It's rather phenomenal stuff. Rounding out the extras is the theatrical trailer and trailers for several other Palm Picture releases.
Although it was Thailand's submission for the 2003 Academy Awards, it's easy to see why Last Life in the Universe ultimately failed to garner a nomination. Competing against loud and attention-grabbing films like Hero and The Crime of Padre Amaro, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's quiet and unassuming meditation on isolation and human connection simply got lost in the crowd.
Thank goodness for DVDs, which allow discriminating movie watchers to discover small treasures that would otherwise be lost in the shuffle. This isn't a film that will appeal to a large group of movie viewers, but those willing to submit to the hypnotic power of this film will find a sublime and haunting viewing experience like few others.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Commentary Track with Cinematographer Christopher Doyle
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