Maccewill Yip returns with a ten-years-later look at Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, and gushes over Christopher Doyle’s glorious cinematography.
I first saw the movie when I was in college with a friend, Jeff. We were both into comics, movies, and memorabilia collecting. We were in one of those stores that sold Asian movies and music, remote cars and planes, and swords and knives. He grabbed a copy after hearing some good stuff about it, and that very night we screened it. We talked about it a few days, looked into the posters to add to our collection, then moved on to our next movie discovery. I would once in a while revisit it, but it has been years since my last viewing and it had gotten buried over other films I was getting into. So this review became an excuse for me to watch it again.
So I began…and stopped. Watched and stopped…watched and stopped. Since I remembered the basic story, there were several things I began to notice in just the first few minutes. I looked at the numbers on labels and wondered what the numbers meant, besides the obvious years. I wondered what the titles were on the stack of books and if they gave any insight into the main character, Kenji (probably not). I noticed the symmetrical chairs with the most likely unintentional moving reflection in the metal trim. Then the shoe rack, labeled for each day of wear. Finally it comes to one of my favorite shots which sum up the scene. Until then, everything we’ve seen is neat and orderly: books, chairs, shoes. Immediately, we can see that the occupant is an obsessive-compulsive. Suddenly, we have a shot that show a change: books scattered with one slipper on top. It is from there the camera moves up and we see feet, one foot still wearing the other slipper. What we see is one of the many fantasies of Kenji’s many suicide attempts in the film, in this case a hanging. What topped it for me were those damn slippers. Looking back at the shoe rack, they were labeled as “Every day” wear. When we see Kenji’s imagination continue, a woman and a security guard enters his apartment to see his dead body. Whereas the woman passes out, the guard walks up to him and, instead of checking the body, pulls off and examine the other slipper. The scene not only shows the mentality of our main character Kenji, but somehow, intentional or not, made slippers a darkly comedic prop. At least for me.
Kenji’s suicidal tendencies, as mentioned in his narration, have nothing to do with money, heartbreak, or hopelessness. He read that death is relaxing, no need to keep with the trends and pace of the modern world. At one point, we see a nightstand with a book that has the only translated title and author: The Black Lizard by Yukio Mishima. Mishima was a prolific, post-war writer who ended his life in ritualistic seppuku after a failed coup at a Japanese army camp. The writer also wrote and made a film adaptation to Patriotism, a short story about a soldier who disobeyed orders, went home to make love to his wife, and together committed suicide. Kenji’s fantasies reminded me a little of both Harold and Maude and Divorce Italian Style. However, his dreams are more somber, looking for a release, or as the cinematographer Christopher Doyle said, an intent to go somewhere else. His attempts are also twinged with feelings of isolation. This is present not only in the title of the film itself, Last Life in the Universe, but the story of the other reptile-titled book that’s brought up several times in the film, The Last Lizard. In the story, a lizard wakes up to find he is the only one left in the world. Finding himself alone, he finds himself missing his friends, family, and even his enemies. “It’s better being with your enemies than being alone,” he thought. In the beginning of the film, though, Kenji had not reached that thought. He has a brother and a co-worker that is infatuated with him, and yet he still feels lonely and, being a Japanese man in Thailand, literally out of place.
This brings us to our other main character, Noi. She and Kenji are both linked by the scene of an accident of Noi’s younger sister, Nid. However, both have had further associations with Nid. Noi is of course Nid’s older sister, but she is feeling guilty for demanding Nid to leave her car after an argument about Nid sleeping with Noi’s womanizing boyfriend, where shortly after Nid is hit by another car. Working as a librarian, Kenji had seen Nid in the library reading The Last Lizard, which, as mentioned before, becomes a focal point in a several moments in the film. The way Kenji views Nid reminds me of how Marcello Mastroianni’s character, Guido, had viewed Claudia Cardinale in Fellini’s 8 ½, as a sort of idealized woman that is only glimpsed at, but most likely never existed when encountered. Not only are they joined by the death of Nid, but like Kenji, Noi also has a need to get away. Instead of Kenji’s escape from his detachment of the modern world through suicide, Noi was on her way to Osaka, Japan, leaving not only her abusive boyfriend, but also her current guilt of Nid’s death.
How both came to get their escape is interesting. After his brother, a member of the Yakuza, gets shot by another member for sleeping with the mob boss’ daughter. In the heat of the moment, Kenji manages to kill his brother’s murderer. He cleans up the evidence and store the bodies in the apartment, leaving for work the next day. Noi comes at the end of the day to return his bag he left at the hospital after Nid’s accident. After having dinner together, Noi asked if he wanted her to drive him home. Wanting to avoid his apartment with the decaying bodies, he asked if he can stay at her place.
She allows him to stay, and at first he becomes a nuisance to her. As days pass, however, you see that they needed each other for different reasons. For Noi, it was someone to help her get a new start with a blank slate, which Kenji does by actually cleaning her house. She was able to ignore her abusive boyfriend and was almost comforted into letting go of her guilt for her sister. It is here that she can fully go through with her plans to move to Osaka. For Kenji, Noi’s home was a place to both get away from his apartment and the bodies within, as well as a way to get close to something that was a part of Nid. But then, you see another part of him change. He came in with his suicidal thoughts in tow, as seen with a knife close to wrist, or laying out to be run over by Noi’s car. Over time, as he is away from the modern world to Noi’s home near the marsh, we see his isolation begin to crumble, and he begins to open to Noi. It is not through much verbal communication, as he doesn’t know much Thai, she’s not fully fluent in Japanese yet, and they both supplement with English.
We see many subtle signs of these changes, but there is one in a segment of the film that is the elephant in the room. At one point, we just begin seeing Noi as Nid, still in the bloody schoolgirl outfit she died in. Essentially, it’s still Noi, but for a period we just see her as Nid. From watching the interview with director, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and commentary with cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, I found that the scene was mainly conceived after a frustrating day of shooting. After a few drinks, they thought about bringing the actress who played Nid back on to “energize” the set. So they experimentally switched Noi out with Nid, without drawing attention to the change at all, and just let it play out for a few scenes. Thematically, it works. At that point, Noi was still grieving over Nid, and there are some people who embody something from those that passed away, either by just handling or reading stuff they have left behind, to extremes of actually dressing up like them. Kenji we can see is actually imagining Noi as Nid, again probably his vision of an idealized woman. So it is probably the point where both Noi finished grieving and Kenji starts to fall in love with Noi herself that you see the vision of Nid turn back into Noi. With that scene, you see Noi gives him her car and, since he doesn’t have one, offers her license as well. They joke back and forth with each other about how the picture on the license looks nothing like her. It’s a lovely little moment, but is one that also highlights the changes Noi’s gone through.
Now that they are in love with each other, Kenji decides to go with Noi to Japan. However, when he goes back to his apartment to grab his passport, he is left with a situation involving not only the dead bodies he had left behind, but also Noi’s boyfriend following him and the Yakuzas coming to see what happened to one of their own. It all leads to a series of events that left the boyfriend dead and Kenji escaping the Yakuzas, but apparently caught by the police. We see him in what looks like an interrogation room, handcuffed, with all his stuff, including his bag and his copy of The Last Lizard. The next thing we see is Noi in Japan, sporting shorter hair to indicate some time has apparently past. Coming home from her waitressing job, her roommate tells her someone is looking for her. She sees the bag withThe Last Lizard sticking out. We see her run off excited, but then the next shot takes us back to Keji in the interrogation room, and then the film ends ambiguously. So what happened? Well, there are probably many explanations, but I see mainly two. One is that Kenji’s suicidal fantasies has been replaced by one of being able to see Noi again in Japan. Just like the first time we see him imagine hanging himself and saying, “This could be me three hours from now,” we ourselves can also imagine the end of the film saying, “This could be me some time from now.” Another possibility is that the scenes in Japan IS what really will happen in the future. This is not just optimistic thinking. Also in the beginning of the film, after the hanging fantasy, we have the opening credits intercut with scenes of Noi at her home and her little pool in the backyard. We see the same shots in the middle of the film. So just as those early scenes can foreshadow later events, what we see of Noi in Japan can be what will hopefully happen to Kenji.
Out of several reasons I wanted to re-visit this film, one was to enjoy Christopher Doyle’s cinematography again. There is just something special about the way he captures images on film that totally engrosses me. In fact, one of the primary reasons this movie was made was that the director wanted to work with Doyle, as well as Tadanobu Asano (Kenji) and Takashi Miike (Yakuza). I had admired his work back when he shot with Wong Kar Wai on works such as Chungking Express, Ashes of Time and In the Mood for Love. Listening to him on the commentary was great, albeit repetitive. He constantly mentions the space and engagement, the rhythm and resonance, the beauty and lyricism. He talks about trying to express universal themes through simplicity, which is one thing I admire most in the films that can pull it off.
I noticed while I was writing just how much was in this film. It seems there’s a lot going on, but watching it the one thing you notice is how sparse is. It is these kind of films, the one that shows so little and yet expresses so much, that are among some of my favorites, such asTwo-Lane Blacktop and Revanche. Given how the film came together, it was surprising how well it gelled together. The interviews with Pen-Ek Ratanaruang reminds me of a interview I read the comic book writer, Jason (John Arne Sæterøy), who also have a wonderfully simplistic style. In part, it seems that some of these works of expressive minimalism are usually people just putting together and experimenting with what they like or how it feels, but the results come out being enjoyed and interpreted in so many ways that the creator had probably never thought of when making it happen. In essence, it’s the mood and feeling we as an audience bring into these different mediums that acts like tone poems, and how these images are translated to us as both private and shared experiences.
Other Random Thoughts:
-I noticed how moments for the main characters are interrupted by pretty obtrusive noises: the buzzer at Kenji’s apartment from his brother trying to get in, and the phone ringing from the boyfriend as he constantly tries to reach Noi.
-Kenji and Noi occasionally using English to communicate kind of reminds me of Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim in La Grande Illusion.
-Title of film doesn’t come in until about thirty-three minutes into the movie.
-Completely forgot about Kenji’s little wet dream.
-Modern way of showing cute couple: show them playing Dance, Dance Revolution together (e.g., Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World).
-First time they eat together, Kenji and Noi are at opposite sides of the table. As the film progress, we eventually see them sit right next to each other on the same side.
-For those who don’t know, in most of Asia, full back tattoos usually indicates that the person is Triad, Yakuza, or some other gang members.
-Christopher Doyle Notes:
+Asian filmmakers usually do innovative things, like jump narrative continuity, to create an energy to the film.
+A cinematographer has to be a good whore.
+Implication vs. explication of ideas; what you see vs. what you imply.
+Takashi Miike came into the set dressed in what we saw in the movie.
-Pen-Ek Ratanaruang Notes:
+Both director and cinematographer agrees on the shooting of space and how the sparse script/story allows for a creation of a certain rhythm.
+They really didn’t care if the story was good. They just wanted the chance to work with people they liked.