Way back when, I was an action-fantasy-sci-fi kinda movie fan, then I decided to explore other realms of cinema that really grabbed my attention. Back in 2003 or 2004, "Last Life in the Universe" was one film that I've always been curious about, but never took a chance in buying when I first saw it in stores. I rented this little offbeat and existential theme movie, and admittedly it found a spot in my extensive dvd collection. Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, a Thai director responsible for "6ixtynin9", this film is beautifully shot, a dreamlike rumination on loneliness, suicide and second chances is definitely a must-see film. It is one of the films that made me explore quite a bit of Thai cinema, Vietnamese films and even Malaysian films.
A mysterious, obsessive-compulsive, suicidal Japanese man named Kenji (Tadanabu Asano) who lives in Bangkok, Thailand, is thrown together with a Thai woman (Beautiful Sinitta Boonyasak) through a tragic chain of events. The woman is everything he is not. He is a neat freak who keeps his dishes washed and his books neatly stacked and categorized. She dresses like a slob, smokes pot and never picks anything up. It's a match that somehow works, though. Slowly and entertainingly, more is revealed about the Japanese man and why he's suicidal and living in Bangkok.
The cinematography is fabulous in this enchanting little film. The cinematography by Christopher Doyle (who has collaborated with Wong Kar-Wai many times before) helps the film’s magical scenes along; it never felt exaggerated or overdone, but it matches its realistic tone all the while maintaining an enchantment about it. While it does have overt magical moments, like when Noi's house cleans itself (as a result of her smoking pot), Noi's character transforming, the film's style is more realistic than one would expect. I saw a few subtle use of symbolism, at times, the screenplay felt like an extended dreamscape. I saw 4 very subtle symbolism; Kenji's obsessive, compulsive, "clean freak" I think means that he is trying his best to keep whatever is left in his life in order while Noi's filthy house symbolizes her indifference to what will come next in her life. Kenji's house cleaning means that he brought direction in Noi's life. Noi's transformation to her "younger" self may be an expression of her becoming more optimistic (youngsters are more so) for the future.
Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the killer) radiates pure charisma even if his character is a bit of a nerdy one at first look. I don't want to spoil anything but the way the story made its slow revelations on Kenji's character is very nicely done and kept me interested. The dynamic chemistry between Asano and Thai hottie Sinitta Boonyasak is so strong and energetic that it will draw any viewer into their blossoming relationship. Even with the film's surrealistic tendencies, the lead characters' relationship plays out realistically. They break the language barrier with the use of English, the two leads feel a bond forming between them, not love or lust, but definitely something REAL and undeniable; this is actually the film’s main draw, despite the film’s surrealistic sensibilities, it makes everything so smooth and believable.
"Last Life in the Universe" may have the ability to depress viewers with its subject matter, but thankfully, the director managed to pitch a lot of humorous moments with Asano's deadpan reactions as well as some comical sequences with the trio of Yakuza hitmen. The trio of Sato Sakichi, Tanaka Yoji and even acclaimed director Takashi Miike makes a profound impact to its narrative, despite their limited screen time. They threatened to steal the film from Asano and Boonyasak. The direction was careful not to lose its sights on its theme, but it also managed to make the storytelling much easier to connect with. There is a balance along the film’s proceedings; Ratanaruang knew while there is depression, there is also a small dose of joyfulness in life, and so he mimics the tone of real life.
Yes, I love fantasy-science fiction and violent action films; but I have always had a special fondness for high-minded art films. The film is not pretentious, it is quite poetic and engrossing. Even though it is marked with a bit of a "sleepy" feel, the film never once failed to captivate me and will definitely not fail to engage an audience. Ponderous, "Last Life in the Universe” will submerge the viewer into its beautifully-drawn world from the 1st act. It is a beautiful breath of fresh air and is never boring...
Highly Recommended! [4+ Out of 5 Stars] Review is re-written from its original form in amazon.com for readers of the ASIANatomy community @lunch.com