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Last Life In The Universe
cast: Asano Tadanobu, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, and Takashi Miike

director: Pen-ek Ratanaruang

104 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Finding one's way out of a labyrinth is normally the problem but following an unprecedented six pages of notes its not the exit but the entrance I'm damned if I can find to this review. Would the scrapping of a double-side page of notes be a disservice to the film, or am I already paying homage to it. Not that Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Last Life In The Universe is a tormenting maze. Its riddles are natural and lie in those little cul-de-sacs, entirely soluble but momentarily sidetracking in their distinct charm. A film of clever upside downs and endearing balance, it compares to those puzzle compendiums you got for Christmas as a kid, tromps and tricks, some of which you do on the day, others you save for the next time.

Kenji (Asano Tadanobu) has fled Osaka for coastal Thailand and is holed up in a borrowed plush apartment that he has furnished predominantly with book-stacks. His compulsive reading is a search for a thrill that might give him reason to live. He ruminates suicide though he can find no good reason to kill himself. "Money problems... broken heart... hopelessness... no, not me. No need to follow the latest trend." No reason to live or die. His suicidal tendencies are about as convincing as his OCD. He cleans but he does not flinch from dirt, has little open regard for it at its filthiest. A visitor spotting the noose gives it a gentle tug suspecting it is not tied firmly... and he is proved right. He continually imagines death at his own hands, allowing himself to slip from the stack of books into his noose, turn a gun on himself and hurl himself into the river, but we always return to him alive if static and only marginally responsive.

Streetwise Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak or 'Noon' as the director pet-names her) and her party-girl younger sister Nid (Sinitta's real sister Laila Boonyasak, or 'Ploy' to Ratanaruang) argue in the car on the way home about Nid's sexual promiscuity, particularly as on this occasion it has involved her sister's boyfriend, Jon (Thiti Phum-om). A comment too far brings Noi to order Nid out of the vehicle while crossing a bridge. It is the bridge on which Kenji is squatted in a show of jumping, and he might do it now, what with a couple of corpses in his flat... if the two dead gangsters weren't in his imagination, that is. Noi cannot leave her sister to walk home and alone. She pulls up alongside her, Nid rounds the rear of the vehicle and she and the precariously loitering Kenji meet eyes. Kenji is struck by Nid's beauty... Nid is struck by a car! Noi and Kenji are united by guilt. The director will state that Kenji's guilt differs to that of Noi in that he does not recognise his part in the girl's death and it is the deaths of others that he has a haunted responsibility for. He does appear blind to his contribution to Nid's death, but neither does he adequately convey culpability in the deceased at home.

Neither Kenji nor Noi speak one another's first language fluently, and flit between broken Thai, better Japanese and a last resort but very useful and confirmatory English. Noi lives in a spacious detached house but it is greasy, mouldy and littered. The fish tank is a green hell with the corpses of tropical fish rigid on the surface and the floors are carpeted in litter. Noi has no concern for any of the mess as she plans to fly to Japan and a new life in four days. She discourages her houseguest from cleaning the dishes that are stacked higher on the sink and draining board than anything you will find in a Goth's kitchen.

So much in art gets branded magic realism when it isn't and this director will probably cringe by my next but this is that perfect exercise in magic realism. The kitchen sink becomes staked to a grubby reality. It is a tent buffeted by gentle gusts of the fantastical, by haunted memory or comic turn. There is a worrying languidness to the early part of the film, characters felled by the heat, lolling and lounging, early pauses in which nothing seems to happen, yet clearly not so. The silences are telling and little mcguffins pave the way for great pay-offs. I have never chortled as frequently in a film before. Often it is less a joke and more a contrast. It is rarely a line of dialogue that brings the laugh but something awful or an eccentric reaction. One line that does slay is that from guest assassin, Mr Tajima (played by Ichi The Killer director, Takashi Miike), who arrives at an airport with only one item of luggage to declare between he and two henchmen. "Just one bag, sir?"

"Yeah, we're only going to kill someone then come right back," he responds unsmilingly, a vexed expression entering his face when she takes him for a very amusing gentleman indeed.

The director, Ratanuaraung explains something of his method in the accompanying Behind The Scenes: The Last Life In The Universe extra. "In Last Life it was like I picked up whatever I bumped into and dropped it all in a bag, then once I emptied the bag out and saw that, say, here's a motorcycle saddle, or a cabbage, or a fishnet... I decided I'd have to construct something out of whatever eclectic contents had ended up in the bag." It is like a writers' circle exercise gone good. Nothing is as he so simply puts it. The documentary is one of the best behind-the-scenes visits found on a DVD yet with the many interview subjects offering fascinating nuggets, particularly Ratanuaraung, incredibly settled in his cat's cradle of experimental notions.

He has an intelligent supporting team that follows his lead adding layers of cleverness of their own. Co-writer Prabda Yoon is a sedate youth, keen to play hidden word games that we are probably better kept out of here in the west. Editor, Pattamanadda Yoko confesses her initial frustration with the apparent nothingness, unaware of her subsequent part in engendering the transcendental beauty of the imagery, acting, actors and story in the finished film. We learn that Sinitta Boonyasak was invited to live a fortnight in the wretchedly dressed house on location, because the director had observed that people respond differently to a house over the period of residence and introducing a 'resident' to an unmet location would be false. The actress saw it through several days then declared it not in her contract. The making-of documentary is of rough quality, streamed in from an inferior Internet source seemingly, low resolution, looking like an old pirate video. Subtitles race by or overstay. But that is all by the by as the 37-minute film is a trove of suggestions for film technique. A cluster of interviews with actors and key crew also litter the disc. Again it is poor image quality and taken at the same time as the making of, sometimes repeating interview excerpts though as none of these run much longer than two minutes they are neither interviews nor have much point to them. The trailer is a final extra.

Back to the main feature though, and the image quality and sound are superb. Asano Tadanobu is still unproven talent as far as I am concerned. Like Beat Takeshi, his public and filmic personae are too cool to take any risks at being real, but here, the impression of having been punched to a dulled sensibility appears to suit him and the role. The Boonyasak sisters are terrifically appealing. Rudely, the director comments how Laila is the prettier, but that Sinitta survives because in the story she is the wiser and for the film she has the sadder eyes. Clearly, in character she is the brighter and in the eyes she does have it. She is dreamy in a dreamy film. The cinematic mastery of Christopher Doyle, HKSC, is evident throughout, though at a more subtle level than in Fallen Angels or Chungking Express. It is helpful for Doyle to have the production design of Saksiri Chantarangsri and the costuming of Sombatsara Teerusaroch to point is lens at. It is a film imbued with tricks.

At one stage in the film the dead sister replaces the living for a final bit of exorcism, her entrance and exit dramatic for the lack of a dramatic entry and exit. The contradictions are many and subtle in occurrence. Only a couple of references to other films incur on this world as it could have independently existed, an unnecessary pun or two on Ichi and a bewitching effects sequence as the house tidies itself and the contents waltz about her. The latter brings to mind the 'substitutionary locomotion' of Bedknobs And Broomsticks and, more blatantly, the maelstrom of levitation from Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist. Ratanuarang came so close to inventing a world of its own for this film it is horribly mistaken, and overly generous, to acknowledge there is other cinema out there. As for the title, Last Life In The Universe, an explanation is given in the supporting documentary. It refers to imagining oneself in that situation, how difficult, insufferable and futile one would feel in that unique instance, with nobody to tell, explain to and carry on the intelligence to. The title is the dark engine of the film. Last Life In The Universe is a gossamer love story, an aesthetic romance annexed by room-loads of affectionate fun and weird tics. I look forward to what I might find the second time around, possibly an entirely different, equally excellent film.
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