Last Life in the Universe Review
Kenji is a young, quiet, reserved librarian at the Japanese Cultural Centre in Bangkok who is constantly planning and imagining ways of ending his own life, however interruptions and a sequence of violent events prevent him from carrying out his suicidal intentions. While attempting to jump off a bridge he witnesses an accident and meets Noi, the sister of a girl he has seen reading a Japanese children’s book in the library. Noi is Kenji’s opposite in every way – messy and untidy where the young Japanese man is almost obsessively clean and organised. Despite the fact that they know little of each other’s language, they converse in broken English and manage to find a comfortable accommodation with each other at Noi’s rundown beachfront house. But events are about to come to a head – Noi is planning to move to Osaka, planning to escape from an abusive boyfriend, while Kenji himself has left troubles back at his apartment...
Last Life in the Universe is a curious and interesting film from the director of Monrak Transistor that seems to be steeped in a variety of sometimes contradictory Asian cinema styles. The subtle, romantic sweep of Wong Kar-Wai is blended with the languid haze of Tran Ang-Hung, the harsh realism of Hou Hsiao-hsien and the extreme violence of Takashi Miike – who is not only referenced in an Ichi the Killer poster, but actually plays the part of a yakuza gangster in the film. (Todanobu Asano, who plays Kenji, also starred in Ichi the Killer and indeed, Christopher Doyle’s directorial debut Away With Words). Pen-ek Ratanaruang however shows a certain flair for the unexpected in his blending of these styles – whether it is in the spectacle of Kenji’s imagined suicides, the shocking outbursts of extreme violence or the lapses into surrealism – there is great imagination and skill in the film’s treatment, strikingly put onto the screen by the ever inventive Christopher Doyle (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Green Tea, Hero).
The video quality on the Thai Region 0 release is unfortunately not great. The image is soft, hazy, grainy and rather murky with poor levels of detail. Colours are faded and dull, blacks flat and grey with no depth. There are some minor aliasing issues and even though the DVD is in PAL format, there is a quite noticeable NTSC 3:2 pull-down judder during slow pans of the camera. Curiously, the film also runs to 108 minutes, which suggests that the film has not undergone PAL speedup (The UK Region 2 PAL release runs to 104 minutes), so I am not quite sure how this has been transferred to DVD. Christopher Doyle comments in the Making Of that there was a lot of print manipulation and dampening of colours, but even taking this into account, the quality should probably look better than the transfer here. Having said that, the quality isn’t too bad and perfectly acceptable for anyone just wanting to see the film. There is a full comparsion between this and the UK edition here.
The film features a strong enveloping and dynamic sound design and the DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack puts this across rather well. It’s possibly a touch too booming and almost unsettlingly loud in places, but has depth and warmth, particularly in the rippling keyboard music score. (If anyone knows where I could pick up the soundtrack, I’d love to get it). The DVD contains both the original soundtrack with Japanese, Thai and English dialogue and a Thai 5.1 dub.
Optional English subtitles are provided for the feature and they translate everything, including the broken-English dialogue sequences.
The extra features include a Theatrical Trailer (4:37), 1.85:1 letterboxed, which is long but effective in conveying the mood and nature of the film without giving anything away. It also has English subtitles. Scoop (13:48) is a Making Of, which is mostly in Thai with no subtitles, but Asano’s comments are subtitled and Christopher Doyle speaks English, so it is worth watching to hear what they have to say. Sneak Peaks offers four unappealing trailers for other films and Lose Spot contains three short TV Spots for Last Life in the Universe.
Last Life in the Universe is hard to pin down. It’s a wry gentle, black comedy, a playful romance, with elements of strong violence in the yakuza sub-plot. It’s all expertly brought together with sensitive direction, appealing performances, luscious cinematography and a beautiful, warm soundtrack. It might be better to wait for a better quality release than the Thai Region 0, but the film is a must for any fans of Asian arthouse cinema.