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Meet Kenji, a quiet librarian with suicidal tendencies. Polite to a fault, he would greet you with a courtesy bow if he could, but he's kind of tied up right now. Entering his antiseptic apartment at the beginning of Last Life In The Universe, you look up and discover his limp body hanging from the ceiling, those beloved books of his piled haphazardly underneath his dangling feet. He's done himself in.
Or has he? Actually, the scene is just a fantasy in Kenji's mind. In reality, the noose is still empty. And Kenji is lost in thought, imagining how peaceful death would be, the silence of, as he says, no cell phones and no e-mail. Just a restful, uninterrupted sleep, and had he not been momentarily distracted by the beauty of the idea, he might have gone through with it. But just as he slips the rope around his neck, the doorbell buzzes. And it buzzes, and buzzes. Again and again. So he answers it, and the opportunity is lost.
Kenji lives, though after seeing his life you can see why he'd want to end it. It's a drab existence for the Japanese expatriate living in Thailand. His living quarters are neat and orderly. Polished shoes sit in racks organized by the days of the week. His colorless clothes are folded up neatly and tucked away. The place shows few differences from the library he works at. Stacks of books line the walls and hallways. His furniture is sleek, but spartan. As he pans around, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, of Hero and In The Mood For Love fame, shoots Kenji's domicile like he's taking polaroids of his belongings as a documentary procedure for his insurance company.
So begins Last Life In The Universe, not with a bang but with a whimper. Though stylish and exotic, the film, now out on DVD, is a sluggish romance with the thinnest of plots and minimal, expressionless dialogue that extinguishes any natural chemistry the actors might have found on their own. Less a coherent film and more a gallery of strategically placed still photography of everyday life awash in subdued colors, Last Life In The Universe is all too conscious of the fact that it is an art film. And nothing - not the story, not the acting, not the languid, watery flow of the keyboard-based soundtrack ... nothing - is going to get in the way of Doyle's artistic premise.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when Kenji visits the home of Noi, a lovely, confrontational, free-spirited Thai woman, the proverbial yin to Kenji's yang. Whereas Kenji has been fantasizing about his own death, Noi is haunted by the accidental killing of her sister, who was hit by a car on a bridge after the two had argued about Noi's abusive boyfriend and his infidelity. Just before the accident, Kenji had been staring into the water, picturing himself plunging through the surface and drowning in a beautifully shot scene with vivid, yet subdued colors and slow-motion bubbles. After accompanying Noi to the hospital, Kenji and Noi strike up a friendship, leading the two back to Noi's messy apartment. Kenji takes it upon himself to do some cleaning, even washing her dishes, though she insist that he needn't. The cleaning job later takes on a supernatural quality as Noi walks out of the house and the detritus of her life magically throws itself neatly back on the shelves and into closets. It's an unnecessary camera trick that seems forced and illogical, strongly out of place as the only scene of its sort in the movie.
This isn't a fantasy, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is supposed to be a film about real life, about living with loneliness and how people connect through tragedy. It's about isolation and coming to grips with the uneasiness of living in a foreign land. The pieces of your puzzling life won't just come together by wizardry. It takes action, which there is little of here, aside from an odd tangent which finds Kenji's brother getting shot by an assassin and another where Kenji is defending the honor of Noi in one of the most stilted fight scenes ever put to film.
Slow to get to the point, Last Life In The Universe glides along, showing you the beauty of Thailand's verdant countryside, it's palm trees and beaches. Doyle's camera flies over a frothy, brackish canal beside a restaurant lit by tea lights and lanterns in a scene where Kenji and Noi finally seem at ease with each other. A relationship unfolds, but we never hear the back stories of two people thrown together by chance. Kenji, played with an empathetic aloofness by Japanese star Asano Tadanobu, remains a mystery, a man of action when circumstances dictate, yet socially ill-equipped to interact with people. And that dichotomy makes him only mildly interesting, just like the movie.
The recent DVD release of Last Life In the Universe includes a thoughtful, revealing interview with writer and director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, the highly credited director of television commercials turned feature film director. Ratanaruang is an emerging star in Thai cinema circles and throughout Last Life in the Universe he plays with contradictions, and does so without being obvious. Though it's easy to discern how different Noi and Kenji are, how that affects their daily lives and the choices they make is less clear. In the end, Noi leaves for Japan, and Kenji stays in Thailand, and their separation, though sad, doesn't make your heart break. It's a flat ending that doesn't leave you with much in the way of answers or questions. Simply, it is what it is, a separation of two people who didn't have much of a connection to begin with. And to me, that's what's wrong with Last Life In The Universe: things just happen, and they do so in such a cold, un-intimate way that a connection is never made with the viewer.
Where Lost In Translation left you wishing you were an earwig in Scarlett Johansson's ear and made you laugh and feel Bill Murray's existential crisis, Last Life In The Universe simply walks on ahead. Kenji remains alone in his universe, and whether he chooses to off himself or not is anybody's guess. Where Ratanaruang and Doyle fail is in their inability to elicit sympathy from the audience. Then again, this is an art film, so maybe that's point. Perhaps Last Life In the Universe left to us to see how unfeeling and careless modern man is. I think that's giving them too much credit. SEE ALSO: www.lastlifedvd.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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