Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tadanobu Asano, Sinitta Boonyasak, Laila Boonyasak, Takashi Miike, Yutaka Matsushige, Riki Takeuchi, Yoji Tanaka, Sakichi Sato, Thiti Rhumorn
Written by: Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Prabda Yoon
Directed by: Pen-ek Ratanaruang
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and drug use
Language: Thai, Japanese and English with English subtitles
Running Time: 112
Date: 08/08/2003

Last Life in the Universe (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Japanese Lessons

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even if they never really get it right, Hollywood loves nothing more than the formula story of some life-loving rebel teaching an uptight recluse how to live. Indeed, American filmmakers could take a few lessons from the new Thai film Last Life in the Universe.

A young Japanese man, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano), lives in Thailand and works in a Japanese library. The first time we see him he has hanged himself in his apartment, or rather, imagined it.

While perusing a children's book about the last lizard on earth he spots a beautiful girl, Nid (Laila Boonyasak), wearing a schoolgirl outfit. The next time he sees her, she dies in an auto accident on a bridge. Kenji befriends the girl's sister, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) and, for reasons best left unexplained, winds up spending the next few days at her place.

That's where it turns into one of those movies about the easygoing girl and the uptight guy, and even the Japanese yakuza enter into the story, giving the boy a chance to stand up for himself and the girl.

But a formula conclusion is the last thing Last Life in the Universe intends to spring on us. Instead, what follows is constantly surprising, incorporating a kind of dream logic, including a sequence wherein Noi suddenly turns into Nid -- complete with her bloody costume from the accident -- calling to mind Luis Bunuel's masterpiece That Obscure Object of Desire.

Last Life in the Universe was directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, whose previous film Mon-Rak Transistor (2002), received excellent reviews but failed to secure a US distributor. (I've never seen it.) He has a confident touch, using lengthy takes and a poetic beat to weave his story. He establishes the film's unusual logic right at the start with the dream sequence of Kenji hanging from the rafters; his suicide note consists of the words "This Is Bliss" printed on a Post-It note stuck to his hand.

Later, in a darkly funny little moment, his unwanted houseguest leaves him a "gone jogging" note, scrawled on the back of his discarded "This Is Bliss" suicide note. In addition, the lizard story -- from which the title obviously comes -- gives a sense of beautiful doom to the film. So by the time Kenji makes it to Noi's house we're ready for just about anything.

Ratanaruang made the right move in hiring the celebrated cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has most frequently collaborated with Hong Kong filmmaker Won Kar-wai but has also worked with Gus Van Sant (Psycho) and Zhang Yimou (Hero). Doyle has a knack for fluid movement and vivid colors, but Ratanaruang slows him down here, so that we get a sense of depth in the various rooms, and a sense of contrast between Kenji's antiseptic apartment and Noi's cluttered, rotting house.

Last Life in the Universe is truly an international production. Besides our Thai director and Australian cinematographer, Japanese director Takashi Miike (whose Gozu also opens this week) makes a cameo as a yakuza. American director/producer Fran Rubel Kuzui (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) somehow turns up as an executive producer. And San Francisco Bay Guardian film critic Chuck Stephens (now based in Bangkok) worked on the English subtitles.

Finally, Noi only speaks a little Japanese and Kenji even less Thai, so they communicate in rudimentary English. Ratanaruang knows, of course, that no matter what language you speak or where you live, you can feel lonely and hopeless too. And things can turn around at any moment.

DVD Details: Palm's beautiful new DVD comes with a rare commentary track by Christopher Doyle, who says that this is the film he's most proud of. Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang contributes a brief interview (in English). Other extras include a collection of Doyle's artwork surrounding the film, a trailer, previews and weblinks.

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