From the Tribeca Film Festival: The Last Life in the Universe
If a movie about an introverted obsessive-compulsive who comes out of his shell after he meets a special girl sounds not only a mite corny but a bit worn as well, The Last Life in the Universe
is blessed with the gifts to briefly reinvigorate a hackneyed concept. Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang takes this dangerously Hollywood romantic situation, variably drains it of narrative and lets the film-which starts off as icy and distanced as possible-thaw both its audience and its tired premise with a gentle charm.
It also helps that Asano Tadanobu, the most handsome and prolific young Japanese actor working today, who seems to be making his rounds in the best films every year, plays the introvert in question. His embodiment of Kenji, a Japanese librarian questionably etching outa meaningful existence in Bangkok, takes politely reserved reticence to whole new levels and is key to making Ratanaruang’s admittedly eye-rolling setup work. The inner warmth of his character certainly helps ease the coldness of the film’s opening moments, which seem to take a visual cue of modern monochromatic desolation from Michael Mann’s Heat
. Kenji’s existence is so minor that it is not until he witnesses the death of the sister of Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) twenty minutes in that the movie even announces its title. Perhaps what makes The Last Life in the Universe
so lovely despite its dramatic roots is the air of complete offhandedness that pervades the film. The death of Noi’s prositute sister comes out of nowhere and is quickly followed by an even more unexpected event. After settling into the rhythms of Kenji’s meticulous, low-key lifestyle his brother suddenly shows up with a yakuza friend; the yakuza kills the brother, Kenji kills the yakuza, and then proceeds to clean the house and he (and the film) continue on as if nothing happened.
It is these momentary flights of unexpected fancy and sometimes out of place creativity that invest Kenji’s slowly blossoming relationship with Noi with an important air of the spontaneous and unreal among the film’s mellow mixture of despondence and melancholy romanticism. As Kenji meagerly asks stay in Noi’s country house (as his is starting to smell of death) their relationship gradually develops in spite of their ability to only communicate in bursts of English or halting Japanese, the possibility is evoked that some, all, or none of this slowly liberating experience is just a languid dream of Kenji’s. This evocation is emphasized by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s precise use of muted colors. The cold unrealness of Kenji’s grey-blue monochromatic city life surprisingly does not distinctly transform once he and Noi move to the country. On the contrary, the colors are indeed warmer, the world around them more textured, but everything still has a muted air about it, very stilled and lethargic. Far from heavyhanded, this downplayed charge in surroundings only increases the dreamy oddness of Noi and Kenji’s relationship, framed within the confines of an extroverted prostitute growing accustomed to Kenji’s affectionate quirks.
One of the most glorious moments in the film is a sudden burst of unexpected magic when Kenji’s compulsion requires him to clean Noi’s mess-of-a-house. Ratanaruang stages a seamless, lovely scene where Noi exuberantly frisks through the house as the various detritus surrounding the place swirls around her in a slow, backwards motion, finally floating back to its proper places around the house. Along with Tadanobu’s performance and moments like these-though usually less lyrical but nevertheless surprising (a most unexpected tattoo, a cameo by director Takeshi Miike)-one is gradually warmed over to Ratanaruang’s combination of pat narrative, visual artfullnes and sudden peculiarities. The film is not helped by the beautiful but non-entity actress who plays Kenji’s sole human interaction, and without Ratanaruang’s diversions-what could have been, what might have happened-The Last Life in the Universe
sometimes approaches a very pretty, measured cliché. Luckily this film is able to stand away from its less distinguishable Asian brethren that think capturing both the ennui of youth as well as its wistful romantic possibilities is a unique idea. It may not be the most original film, but paradoxically enough it is also unusual and often moves in unforeseen ways. Even if its various inspirations are not consistent through and through, the film’s placid visual allure is enough to thaw a much more hackneyed tragic-comedy than this, and the film ends on a note of such lovely melancholy as to perhaps discount even the most egregious of the film’s flaws.