Justin Lin gets the credit for making Asian America cinema hip, but some recent DVD discoveries provide concrete proof of our cultural amnesia..
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A story grounded in reality but embellished in fantasy, the imprints Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe makes are indelible.
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe is a film that places a vast array of events and experiences through the lens of a single character. And the effect is spectacular. As Thailand’s Academy Award submission for the Best Foreign Language Film, this story about love, loneliness, and escape weaves unique elements to create a delightful blend of dramatic storytelling told from a unique vantage point.
Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is an obsessive-compulsive Japanese librarian's assistant who leads a solitary, non-evasive existence in busy Bangkok. Prone to suicidal lapses, all Kenji wishes is for some peace from the hustle bustle of everyday life. However, the external world seems to come knocking at Kenji's door, interrupting his every attempt at eternal solitude. His life changes when two sisters, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak) and the younger Nid (Laila Boonyasak), enter Kenji's life. After a heated altercation that ignites into a deadly accident, Noi and Kenji's paths cross. Simultaneously, a visit from Kenji's reckless, crass brother (Yutaka Matsushige), who is a member of the Yazuka, results in a sequence of unexpected events. What occurs are two dead bodies in Kenji's formerly immaculate apartment, one of which Kenji is responsible for. Kenji asks to stay at Noi's home, a dilapidated house surrounded by exotic flora in the rural outskirts of Bangkok. What emerges is an unlikely bond between people who are from seemingly two opposite poles of the planet.
The relationship between Kenji and Noi is delicately constructed. Noi is an eclectic, flighty woman whose haphazard lifestyle is reflected in the messy state of her home. Then there is Kenji, overly apologetic and unassuming. Sometimes speaking in English, at times striving to communicate through Kenji's broken Thai or Noi's limited Japanese, the film makes it apparent that their connection is a thin and tenuous one. Noi is distracted by the problems she has in her life--her sister's tragic death, her womanizing boyfriend--while Kenji, despite the fact that there are two dead bodies rotting in his home and the Yazuka are out on the prowl for him, is just happy to be in good company and away from his banal existence. There is an element of charm in the awkwardness exhibited between the two characters.
Asano executes the role of Kenji superbly. He plays the character of Kenji as a man who suffers quietly. He reveals the many facets of the main character, from being the excessively apologetic introvert to a person capable of killing a human in a perfect balance. Boonyasak is strangely alluring as she plays the aloof, preoccupied Noi whose tragedies in life remain unspoken.
Kenji’s psychological disturbances serve as a portal into an existence that is rarely experienced. The murders that take place in Kenji's apartment appear to be taken lightly. The first thing Kenji does after the murders is to clean the splayed blood off his paintings. Through the course of the film, we are convinced that Kenji’s way of handling heavy matters in life can be refreshing, if not liberating.
Ratanaruang is a master of detail and through the meticulous arrangement of visuals and a compelling story, he uses Kenji as a mere palette for creating a new reality. Time is suspended, and events and Kenji's visions are weaved to form a cohesive whole.
Celebrated cinematographer Christopher Doyle creates scenes that seem to be shrouded in a veil of mystery. The world at times moves at a different pace; the small details of life are carefully examined. Scenes of water pitter-pattering down a roof or of mist forming on a window are captivating. There are places in the film that are dreamlike, but as the film is grounded in enough realistic elements, the blend between reality and fantasy is seamless.
Last Life in the Universe constructs a world in which the direction of the sun is altered, whereas tragedy is cast into a bright light and comedy flickers in the darkened shadows. It is a world that we wish could cling onto us and never let go.
Date Posted: 9/3/2004