Tadanobu Asano is Japan’s answer to Johnny Depp. Like Depp, Asano is blessed (cursed?) with pop star good looks and could have easily lived out the teen idol fantasy doing pin-up spreads in Japan’s equivalent to Seventeen and Tiger Beat magazine. But like Depp, Asano has chosen to turn his back on mainstream pop culture, instead starring in a series of cult films that has made him Japan’s reigning king of quirk cinema. And again, like Depp, thanks to his continual reinvention of himself as a performer, Asano has become one of the most sought after Japanese stars, appearing in films from the likes of Takashi Miike, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and Takeshi Kitano. Asano’s presence in a film is a nearly surefire mark of quality and it was purely on the basis of his presence that I sought out the just-released Thai film Last Life in the Universe.
Asano stars as Kenji, an isolated and obsessively neat Japanese man living on his own in Bangkok, living a quiet life as a librarian at the Japanese Cultural Center. His apartment is a sterile, cold place, almost entirely devoid of any color with his possessions — mostly stacks upon stacks of books — fanatically organized by size, shape, color, etc. Kenji is also suicidal, openly entertaining death fantasies and wondering what comes next — a topic he has evidently dwelt upon for quite some time.
When we first meet him, Asano’s Kenji is a cipher, seemingly all form and no content — a man whose life is all about structure with no true purpose or reason or hope. This begins to change first when Kenji’s estranged brother — a low-level yakuza on the run from his boss — turns up at his door seeking shelter and introducing a sudden surge of disorder into Kenji’s life. The larger shakeup follows close on the heels of his brother’s arrival however, when Kenji spots an attractive young Thai girl at work. He is obviously attracted to her but she disappears before he has the chance to approach or say anything.
Later that night while walking home, Kenji crosses a bridge and, while fantasizing about what it must feel like to drown, he climbs up onto the rail. At the same time, the girl is driving home arguing with her older sister over an indiscretion with the sister’s admittedly sleazy boyfriend. Unaware of Kenji’s presence, the elder sister (Noi) pulls the car over next to his position on the rail and throws the younger sister (Nid) out of the car. Their eyes meet for just a second — the girl fixated on the man she believes about to kill himself, the man fixated on the girl he had spotted earlier in the day — before Nid is struck by a passing car and killed before the stunned eyes of both Kenji and Noi. The bulk of the film is then built around the relationship that develops between Noi and Kenji as these two people who are entirely alone in their worlds reach out to each other.
Though the film contains trace elements of other genres this is, at its heart, a very simple story of two hopeless people meeting and slowly learning to have hope in their lives again. The two leads both deliver stunning performances as these deeply damaged people trying to communicate with each other — Kenji speaks dominantly Japanese with only a fragmentary knowledge of Thai, while Noi speaks dominantly Thai with a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, leading the two of them to opt for fractured attempts at English which both have at least a middling knowledge of — and while very little is ever said explicitly as far as the characters’ backgrounds, both actors turn in deeply nuanced performances that make their characters utterly believable.
While a film structured this way will undeniably succeed or fail based on the performances of the lead actors, writer/director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has made some choices that certainly go a long way towards lifting this film into the realm of the truly exceptional.
First there is the script. Ratanaruang has done a masterful job of giving us just enough information about his characters and situations that we can follow the story without feeling the need to spell everything out explicitly. As the film progresses, we’re given little glimpses into other aspects of their lives, and we gradually come to realize that Kenji has a history entirely unlike what we may have guessed at the film’s opening. Ratanaruang lets his characters unfold naturally, so we come to know them as they come to know each other. He trusts his audience enough to not spoonfeed them and it’s an excellent choice that adds exceptional depth to the film.
Second, there is what I’ll call the incidentals — things such as the settings, music, and supporting players. Production design is excellent throughout the film with the sets perfectly matching the characters and situations. When effects are used, they are simple and employed to great effect. The score is a fantastic piece of downtempo electronic chill-out that sets the tone absolutely perfectly. And finally, though Ratanaruang is working in Thailand, he obviously knows his Asian cinema in general as evidenced by the presence of Japanese gangster film icon Riki Takeuchi and Japanese cult film giant Takashi Miike in cameo roles.
More evidence of Ratanaruang’s grasp of what’s good in the Asian film world comes in major choice number three: cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle is best known for his work with Wong Kar-Wai and Zhang Yimou, and he has justifiably earned himself a reputation as one of the finest cinematographers in the entire world and certainly the best currently working in Asia. Doyle-shot films are a treat to look at and Last Life in the Universe is no exception. Shots are framed and lit perfectly and Doyle’s visuals add immeasurably to the general tone of the proceedings.
Last Life in the Universe is currently available as a Region 3 PAL release, but if you’ve got an all-region DVD player it’s certainly worth the effort of tracking it down. I recommend www.ethaicd.com where you can pick up the very high quality official release for a mere ten bucks, shipping included.
Written by Chris Brown.