Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Review: Last Life in the Universe

  • Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
  • Starring Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak
  • Theatrical released in Thailand in 2003; released on English-subtitled DVD

Kenji, a young Japanese living in Bangkok, is no ordinary man. He's a neat freak, whose obsessive compulsive traits are revealed in his book-filled apartment, from the colour-coordinated stacks of socks in his closet to the neat row of clean plates drying by the spotless kitchen sink.

His big kick though, is suicide, which is how you first meet him, hanging by his neck from a noose. It's only a possible reality, as is most of what happens in this darkly surreal romantic comedy.

Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) comes close to offing himself in several various ways, but is always interrupted by a noisy buzzer, bell or other alarm. He has an even darker side that is slowly revealed in a humorously warm, low-key manner.

And as more is revealed, a small cast of progressively sleazier characters are paraded by for the audience's enjoyment. There's a Thai gangster ex-boyfriend who's overwhelming, but a trio of yakuza (think Three Stooges) steals the show.

Kenji's obsessive compulsive traits are put to productive use as a librarian at the Japan Cultural Centre. It's there where a uniformed schoolgirl (Chermarn Boonyasak) captures his attention. But she vanishes, almost before his very eyes.

She is seen later, at the culmination of a chain of events that brings Kenji together with the girl's older sister Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak).

Anyway, the action is brief and tragic -- as is all the action in this film. There's a little bit of gunplay -- sudden and violent, yet so subtle, you wonder if you're dreaming.

Driving a beat-up old white Volkswagen Beetle convertible (a car that is just as much a character as the actors), the pair drive out to Noi's rundown seaside home. There, Kenji sees that Noi is everything that he isn't. There are mounds of dirty dishes everywhere. Books and magazines are strewn all over. The goldfish is floating dead, upside down in the aquarium. She's a slob, too, in contrast to Kenji's button-down appearance. She's also a pothead.

The mess is captured with moody realism by Hero cinematographer Christopher Doyle, in much the same manner he brought a smouldering feel to Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love. Even the flotsam and jetsam washing up at the beach evokes some emotions.

Just as Kenji is out of the ordinary, so is the film. For a Thai film, there's hardly any Thai spoken. Most of the dialogue is in Japanese, and Kenji and Koi converse in English (as well as some Japanese as, by a mind-boggling twist of coincidence, she is moving to Japan).

Highlights include an appearance by Riki Takeuchi, as Kenji's brother, as well as director Takeshi Miike, as the leader of a Three Stooges-like trio of gunmen. Takeshi's and Asano's collaboration, Ichii the Killer, is referenced in a poster hanging up at the Japan Culture Center.

Sharp-eyed Thailand watchers will see a spiky-haired actor portraying a doctor in a hospital scene, which is possibly a reference to Thailand's eminent forensic pathologist, Dr. Porthip Rojanasunan.

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