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    Last Life in the Universe

    Found in translation

    Atmospheric and original, the Thai-Japanese yakuza-romance-enigma "Last Life in the Universe" plays with convention, perception and even the reputations of its cast members.


    Concealing a loopy sensibility in its languorous examination of fatalism and entropy — "Last Life in the Universe" by Thai filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang is a strange, fascinating animal...apparently a lizard capable of effortlessly evading pigeonholes.

    Directed by: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.
    Written by: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Prabda Yoon.
    Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Yutaka Matsushige, Riki Takeuchi, Takashi Miike, Yoji Tanaka, Sakichi Sat™, Thiti Rhumorn, Junko Nakazawa, Akiko Anraku, Nortioshi Urano, Phimchanok Nala Dube, Ampon Rattanawong, Jakrarin Sanitti, Songsith Visunee, Prayoon Tiancharoenwong, Jakrapan Ruttajak.
    Cinematography: Christopher Doyle.
    Edited by: Patamanadda Yukol.
    In Thai and Japanese with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Focusing on Japanese expatriate Kenji, played by the versatile actor Asano Tadanobu (who, in addition to starring in the ultra-gory "Ichi the Killer," can now be seen in Takeshi Kitano's homage "Zatoichi: the Blind Swordsman"), the film's first scene conveys Kenji's three defining characteristics: compulsive orderliness, suicidal desire, and passivity. After a suicidus interruptus courtesy of his yakuza brother, Kenji re-engages his daily routine, virtually perspiring a film of indifference and unmalicious misanthropy which keeps him aloof, insensible, and affectless.

    Last Life in the Universe  
    Although the headwater of Kenji's anomie remains unmapped due to Tadanobu's purposeful opacity (Kenji's exile, survival skills, and body art point to trauma from a prior yakuza existence), it seems that Kenji feels, unreflectively, out-of-place in a world where he sees no beauty in place or person. However, a life preserver comes in the guise of a pretty pinafored prostitute and an existentialist children's book providing the title of the film, which, for all its darkness, signals that a corner has been turned in Kenji's life (slowly turned, mind you ... he tries suicide a few more times, but it seems more out of habit than despair).

    After witnessing the pinafored prostitute's sudden death, mocking his own death wish, Kenji (unable to return home because of another fatal incident) attaches himself unobtrusively as a ward to her similarly-employed sister, Noi (Sinnitta Boonyasak). In the countryside, the entropy of Kenji's interior reverses course in response to Noi and the new environment, characterized by indomitable chaos, disuse, and decay — in other words, entropy externalized. In their brief time together, Kenji and Noi first forge a provisional domestic partnership, and then, overcoming dissonant personalities and a linguistic barrier, they develop an emotional bond through subverbal channels.

      Last Life in the Universe
    The film, however, is much more than a summary of its narrative parts, as Ratanaruang hardly concentrates his directorial wand solely on narrative. Atmospheric obsessiveness (thanks in part, no doubt, to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-Wai's usual accomplice), symbols of who-knows-what sincerity (besides the frequent lizard, look for the Escher-like painting of birds-to-fish in Kenji's apartment), deadpan shifts in tone, barely-beneath-the-surface playfulness (note the Tadanobu-featuring "Ichi the Killer" poster in the library), and, most of all, whimsical, almost imperceptible stylistic vagaries (slightly out-of-sequence scenes, the temporary displacement of Noi for her dead, still-scarred sister) impart a subliminal undercurrent that makes the film authentically dreamy and anti-verite.

    It is this earned, designed dreamy feel, which perhaps serves the narrative function of conveying the flavor of Kenji's intake of the world and seems to stream directly from his unconscious, that makes the film rise above mere participation in the artfilm platonic template of minimalist, unsentimentalized romance. Also distinguishing the film is Ratanaruang's willed unreliability as a straightfaced storyteller; he introduces so many playful elements that solemnity is fugitive, deflecting the viewer from over-investment in the narrative proceedings (a tendency of audiences who generally prefer a neorealist diet). Loopiness is a weapon wielded well here (with its absurdist tilt), and the detachment it engenders to the would-be lofty meditation on fate, death, and emotional attachment makes viewing "Last Life in the Universe" a unique experience.

    AUGUST 9, 2004

    Reader comments on Last Life in the Universe:

  • A Question and a Comment   from Deborah, Aug 21, 2004
  • Re: A Question and a Comment   from lolo341, Mar 25, 2007
  • Art Question   from Ivan, Aug 22, 2005
  • Re: Art Question   from Kim S¿renssen, Aug 28, 2005
  • [no subject]   from anonymous, Jun 28, 2007

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