Sunday, February 15, 2009

Film for Lovers: Last Life in the Universe

Well, I've killed all of you with an overdose of my blogging. Good going, me! See what happens when you get too much of a good thing? Good thing it's so easy to reanimate people into zombies incapable of cognition beyond reading this blog. It's all about the right concoction (or "secret blend") of herbs and spices and a little detachment from that inconvenient "reality" thing.

So here we are at long last, at the tail end of my five-part daily series on notable movies with love as a central theme. (To reiterate one last time, the rest of the series consists of Paris, Je T'aime, The Baxter, Before Sunrise, and Before Sunset.) Valentine's Day is over - personally, I mostly spent it trying to sleep and failing, and then played some Animal Crossing. (Not only romantic, but productive, too!) It's not too late for this one last hurrah, of course, so here we are. Maybe I'll find some more subjects to blog on more regularly soon.

Either way, to conclude this series? The fantastic 2003 Thai film by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Last Life in the Universe. (The original Thai language title is Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan, which can be interpreted in English as "Love Story of Noi and Nid, a Lot" or "A Small/Little Love Story That is a Lot.") The film itself is a collaboration between Ratanaruang, cult Japanese director Takashi Miike, and actor Tadanobu Asano. (Miike and Asano have worked closely together before, most famously on Ichi the Killer.) Ratanaruang having studied in the United States, the film's also a self-conscious work of art house cinema.

Co-written by Ratanaruang and author Prabda Yoon, Last Life in the Universe tells the story of two deeply-suffering individuals united by tragedy. Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a librarian at the Japan Foundation in Bangkok living in apparent self-imposed exile in Thailand for reasons unknown. He lives an obsessively tidy, precise life in an apartment resembling a library, constantly flirting with suicide from the very beginning of the film for reasons even he can't completely articulate beyond wanting to depart from his present life. While Kenji wouldn't exactly be an anomaly in Japan as an introvert, he faces some alienation within his own culture as a result of his allergy to fish - an important staple in the Japanese diet.

Kenji's brother - a member of a yakuza group - abruptly shows up in Bangkok, interrupting Kenji's latest suicide attempt, and imposes on him by moving in. We learn from a fellow yakuza member at a hostess bar with him that he's on the run from their group's leader for raping his daughter. It's at this bar where we're introduced to one of the hostesses, Nid (Famous Thai actress Laila Boonyasak, the character's name literally meaning "small"), and her older sister, Noi (Laila's real life older sister Sinitta Boonyasak, her character's name literally meaning "few" or "less."). The sisters quarrel over Nid having recently slept with Noi's boyfriend.

Back at Kenji's apartment, the other yakuza kills Kenji's brother for their boss and prepares to kill Kenji, who recently came into possession of a gun himself. A lucky shot or two later, Kenji has a real problem on his hands. He considers jumping off a bridge into the river below. Noi and Nid's fight continues on the same bridge, and Noi has Nid get out of the car. She notices Kenji about to jump to his death, and finds her own life instead abruptly lost to a speeding motorist.

The shared experience of this tragedy brings Kenji and Noi together. Two people who'd suffered strained relationships with their siblings up until their sudden deaths. Unable to continue living in his apartment with two dead bodies stashed there, Kenji returns home with Noi to the Thai countryside - much further from Bangkok - and rejects her offers to drive him home. Kenji, being an obsessively clean person - unlike Noi, who'd allowed her house to fall into relative ruin - begins to sort through her ramshackle environs and organize things again, overstaying his welcome. After a fight over Kenji's snooping a little too much, the characters naturally begin to develop a closer bond, sharing a bowl of noodles for lunch - passing it back and forth between them, each demonstrating the extent of their knowledge of the other's language. (Making little jokes throughout.) This is the heart of the film: Two interesting personalities coming together - diametrically opposed yet complementary - to tell a subtle love story between two very damaged people.

Language, communication, and its intercultural successes and failures despite lack of a common fluent language act as one of the film's central themes. Something mainstream cinema generally doesn't explore, lacking an audience interested in such things. Where Kenji's relatively monotone, reserved, and constantly apologetic in his speech, Noi's much more extroverted and vocal with her emotions, speaking in much more forceful and expressive tones.

Intercultural communication and miscommunication is presented far more realistically than in most films featuring individual cultural exchange as a central theme, with the two leads speaking little of one another's languages, and communicating through the lingua franca of clumsy English (Making this a rare fully trilingual film), neither of them fluent in that either. As you'd expect, there's a whole lot of "What?" in the dialogue where communication fails, like in real life miscommunication.

Like the recently reviewed Linklater love stories, Last Life in the Universe also features an element of time constraint. The entire story takes place over only a handful of days, with a deadline in Noi being set to move to Kyoto a few days after taking Kenji in, with the question of what would become of him once she left. And like the Linklater films, the heart of the story lies in the love story between the two main characters and their getting to know one another, despite both of them being relative closed books as people. (Unlike the leads in Linklater's films.) The characters begin to noticeably grow as a result of their time together, their unbalanced personalities beginning to find a bit more of a balance towards the end.

Surrealist elements set the film apart from many others stylistically in how its narrative unfolds, as well. These elements include the movement of inanimate objects as though possessed by ghosts, and visual character displacement - elements of characters combining at one point, and the actors for two primary characters briefly switching without any narrative clarification occurring in those scenes. Last Life in the Universe is a complicated, multilayered narrative with a great deal of depth both within the script and visual direction of the film itself, warranting many viewings to fully enjoy all the ways the film can be interpreted.

A key underlying focus of the narrative is the decisions people make and the changes that can happen in their lives throughout the film. In its dreamy, surreal atmosphere, it's difficult to determine for certain how much of the story actually occurs, and how much amounts to imagined possibilities. That less concrete approach to the narrative is an interesting thing to watch. And personally, I think there isn't enough being done with fluid, abstract narratives these days.

As the film winds down, Noi gets ready to depart and Kenji faces some unexpected challenges in a rush back to his apartment, the audience wondering if the two will manage to safely end up together. How it ends, of course, I won't say. Only that you should absolutely see the film for yourself.

In many ways, Last Life in the Universe can be compared - both in some of its themes and the sort of atmosphere the film sets - to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which was made in the same year. While Coppola's film is certainly very good in its own right, it pales in comparison to what Last Life in the Universe accomplishes. Ratanaruang's film sets its sights even higher - telling a similar, but far darker and more elaborate story with far more compelling characters - and scores on all fronts.

Film is primarily a visual medium, and Last Life in the Universe is an absolute labor of love in that regard too. The brilliant Christopher Doyle (Who directed one of the short films in Paris, Je T'aime) served as the cinematographer in this project as well, finding beauty in even the most desolate bits of Thai scenery. Tense and slow-paced, the entire film is beautifully shot, without a single moment or scene that isn't perfectly framed by the camera lens. There's a quiet seductiveness and element of sexuality bubbling underneath the characters' cautious interactions and gradually developing intimacy throughout the film. The camera brings these things alive.

Hualampong Riddim and Small Room provide the film with an absolutely haunting original score (Which I've had the fortune of importing from Thailand myself.) that enables the film to further give the viewer goosebumps from the incredible atmosphere all these elements come together to build. An absolutely expert, top of the line work of cinema. Last Life in the Universe is easily the darkest of the films I've focused on in this series, but also one of the best, telling its tale of a subtle love between damaged people in the wake of personal tragedy.

Well, that's it for this five-part series on notable non-mainstream movies on love. Next up, I'm thinking of doing a couple more love-themed entries - though with slightly longer breaks between them (Hopefully not as long as usual) - to round out my February entries with a couple of love-related scientific studies I've seen in the news recently. Intriguing stuff.

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