Concentrating on mood and the subtle evolution of feelings within a romance, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang shows considerable maturity. Film displays distinctive personality, idiosyncratic sense of humor and stylish visual sense. Festival attention should open roads into discerning arthouse markets.
Putting aside the densely plotted vitality of his previous films “6ixtynin9” and “Mon-Rak Transistor” and concentrating instead on mood and the subtle evolution of feelings within a romance, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang shows considerable maturity in “Last Life in the Universe.” The film displays a distinctive personality, an idiosyncratic sense of humor and a stylish visual sense. It recovers from an opening that’s a little oblique to grow progressively more seductive as the two lost central characters become entwined. Festival attention should open roads into discerning arthouse markets.
Laying low from a troubled past that becomes clear only gradually, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a depressed Japanese librarian in Bangkok, who is contemplating suicide. Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) is a hooker, planning to uproot and ply her trade in Osaka. The two are worlds apart: He’s an obsessive-compulsive order freak while she’s a slovenly mess; she watches trash TV while he’s an avid reader; he’s soft-spoken and polite while she’s sassy and direct.
The unlikely couple are thrown together when Kenji is mulling a suicidal leap from a city bridge and is interrupted by an accident that claims the life of Noi’s younger sister Nid (Laila Boonyasak).
Prior to the accident, Kenji walks in on his brother (Yutaka Matsushige) being shot by a yakuza crony (Riki Takeuchi). Kenji shoots the killer with a gun he was considering using on himself. He leaves the two bodies in his apartment, ultimately going with Noi to her beach house outside the city, where he asks to stay a few days.
The relationship takes shape in a languorously fluid succession of scenes at times charged by muffled sexual energy and at others by the sweet awkwardness and minor-key humor of opposites interacting.
Noi prepares to leave for Japan, only occasionally manifesting her grief for Nid, while Kenji puts his own plans on hold and attempts to bring order to his new environment. This is achieved in a magical sequence in which papers, books and other objects fly around the untidy house, reassuming their proper place. The couple communicates mainly in broken English given that Kenji speaks only a smattering of Thai and Noi is in the early stages of teaching herself Japanese.
The first indication of Kenji’s past comes when he swiftly dispatches Noi’s pimp Jon (Thiti Phum-Orn), who whips her after his persistent phone calls are ignored.
Adopting a stripped-down Japanese style, director Ratanaruang and co-scripter Prabda Yoon maintain an approach more intent on conveying the characters’ inner development than what’s happening around them. This carries through to the closing act, which plays down the violence and the actual plot mechanics of Kenji’s outcome, and instead projects a wistful conclusion shaped by desire. And while the puzzle-like story initially requires some work on the part of the audience, the film’s fragmented lyricism becomes increasingly hypnotic as the relationship deepens.
A magnetic actor who’s worked with some of the best of Japan’s cutting-edge filmmakers including Hirokazu Kore-eda, Takeshi Kitano, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takashi Miike — who makes an amusing appearance as a yakuza chief and whose “Ichi the Killer” is referenced — Tadanobu’s performance is understated and measured, gracefully complementing Boonyasak’s sexy brashness as Noi. Toying with the character’s identity and adding to the hallucinatory feel of the film, Ratanaruang at times switches between the actresses playing Noi and Nid, after the latter’s death.
The pervasive thread of quiet sensuality, as well as eccentric asides and a curiosity for odd details, are echoed in redoubtable cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s luminous work. The exquisitely composed images, the soft, muted light and cool blue tones cast a slightly unreal haze over the action and conjure a sense of placelessness in an anonymous Bangkok that bears little resemblance to the Thai capital normally seen on screens. A lazy, melodic score further shapes the film’s evocative atmosphere.