Last Life in the Universe
January 31, 2006
Last Life in the Universe (2003) begins with a striking image of a man who has hung himself, his feet dangling with one slipper on and a pile of books underneath. Cut to a shot of the man now standing on the books about to hang himself. It turns out he only imagined doing it. Kenji (Tadanobu) wants to kill himself but he doesn’t know why. He does know that it’s not for the usual reasons: money problems or from a broken heart.
Kenji has cut himself off from society: no TV, no DVD player, and no computer. He leads a meticulously ordered life right down to the neat stacks of identical clothes in his closet. He works at a library and spends the time he doesn’t think about suicide reading voraciously. His brother constantly invites himself over and on one occasion brings over a friend. Kenji’s life gets a whole lot more complicated when his brother is shot and killed by this man who is in turn killed by Kenji.
Kenji then meets a young woman named Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) whose sister has just died, hit by a speeding car right in front of both them. This bonds the two of them immediately in a morbid way because they both have recently deceased siblings. He begins to hang out at her place and discovers that her lifestyle to be the complete antithesis to his own. Noi’s fridge is a grungy science experiment, piles of unwashed dishes clutter up countertops and her backyard overlooks a half-full pool of murky water surrounded by unkempt vegetation. It is in stark contrast to his orderly, Spartan apartment.
At first, they have little in common. She speaks Thai, he speaks Japanese but they find common ground in both being able to speak English. They are lonely people who find each other by a cruel twist of fate. She’s scared to be alone and he wants to die because he is so lonely. As they spend time together they find solace with and compliment each other. Noi brings a little chaos into his life and Kenji brings a little order to hers. They are an odd couple to be sure but they make it work.
Asano Tadanobu delivers a very impressive, minimalist performance. He says little and has a near expressionless face but the subtle movements reminiscent of a silent film actor. His plain outfit—a nondescript dress shirt and pants—mirrors the simplicity of his life.
Cinematographer extraordinaire, Christopher Doyle adopts a fairly straight-forward, at times, grungy realism with the camera apart from the occasional stylistic flourish to punctuate a given scene, giving it a dreamy feeling. Doyle has an uncanny knack for giving a sense of place and physical space. In many of the films he has worked on, most notably with Wong, rooms are almost characters unto themselves. One only has to think of Tony Leung’s apartment in Chungking Express (1994) and how his camera maps out every nook in order to shed light on the characters that inhabit it. The same holds true in Last Life as he lingers on a shot of a ceiling fan or a pile of dishes or the dirty swimming pool to give insight into Noi’s character.
Last Life is Harold and Maude (1971) re-imagined by Wong Kar-Wai (his long-time cinematographer Christopher Doyle worked on this movie as well) with Kenji just as death-obsessed as Harold only to learn the value of life from a woman. Like in many of Wong’s films, Kenji and Noi don’t quite connect romantically but by the film’s end there is the possibility and the potential for a romantic relationship but this is left up to the audience to imagine.
Fans of Christopher Doyle are in for a rare treat as he contributes an audio commentary. Despite his reputation as a legendary carouser, the cinematographer keeps it together to deliver a top notch track. He starts off by saying that what he does is “take ideas and turn them into images,” which, for him, is the great challenge and pleasure of his job. The film is not just about content but also deals with space and time. “For me, all films are about space,” he says at one point. Doyle takes us through the movie and speaks very intelligently about its themes and his personal philosophy towards his craft.
There is “An Interview with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.” He had met Christopher Doyle, Miike Takashi and Asano Tadanobu many times at the same festivals over the years and they all wanted to work together so Ratanaruang wrote a script for them. The director speaks intelligently about how the story was developed and speaks candidly about his own work.
“The Art of Chris Doyle” is a collection of photos with collage artwork surrounding them that he took while shooting the movie.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.