Tuesday 18 September 2007

Last Life in the Universe (2003) Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

Kenji is suicidal, but not for the same reasons as everyone else, or so he thinks. He's also a complete neat freak, an obsessive compulsive who even precisely stacks the books he's going to jump off to hang himself. He's a Japanese librarian, working in Thailand, and as exact in his work as at home, and about as interesting a character to know as you'd expect. However he's calm, methodical and with hidden depths and interests that keep him from actually carrying out his intentions.

However his life really changes in a single day with two separate incidents. Firstly, while crouched on a bridge rail contemplating a leap off into the water, a young Thai waitress notices him and gets hit by a car, leaving Kenji to comfort her sister Noi whose car she splattered against. Then, back at his neat freak apartment, his yakuza brother is shot dead by a colleague and, even though he was about to shoot himself with his brother's gun, Kenji kills the gangster instead and cleans up the mess.

This is a strange film in many ways, but the strangest thing is that we don't see the title of the film until 32 minutes in. It arrives as Kenji and Noi connect, and Kenji discovers from the state of Noi's beach house that she is the opposite of him in many ways. She's entirely not a neat freak, with as much chaos in her environment as Kenji has order. It's also strange to hear their conversations, which are conducted in a mix of English, Japanese and Thai. It's fun to hear them switch languages without the subtitles changing.

The film is slow and thoughtful, with as much care devoted to the spaces between things as the things themselves, hardly surprising given that the cinematographer was Christopher Doyle, the man behind the look of Hero and no end of Wong Kar Wai movies. This one reminds of Days of Being Wild. It's a very calm and peaceful film too, regardless of the subject matter, so it seems a little strange to see the director and writer of Ichi the Killer here as yakuza. Kenji is Tadanobu Asano, who is perfect for the role and who reminds somewhat of an Oriental version of John Cusack, though last time I saw him he was playing the lead role in Ichi the Killer, looking and acting completely different. Talk about versatility! Noi is Sinitta Boonyasak, the real life sister of Laila who plays her screen sister Nid here. She's excellently cast here too, because she's beautiful but very real, and untidy but believably so.

The filmmaking is clever and subtle. The obvious standout piece is a trip when Noi floats through what seems like some magical realignment of her beach house, in reality Kenji cleaning up. However there are other scenes where what we should watch is something far less obvious: when characters are looking in different directions, what's real and what's a dream sequence or the meaning of a full back tattoo on a Japanese man. What we're watching is two people find peace and commonality, and that's hardly an easy task to achieve, let alone this minimalistically. Kenji finds chaos and Noi finds order.

I can't remember the last time that I saw a Thai film, if indeed I've ever seen a Thai film. I've seen Japanese cinema, of course, and Korean and Chinese. I've even seen Indonesian and Filipino films, but usually bizarre low budget B-movies like The Warrior and the Blind Swordsman or The Impossible Kid. Something strangely elegant like this seems out of place and I'm now really looking forward to seeing more, especially from director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who now makes my must look out for list. What a fascinating film!

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