Although some critics have been quick to compare Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe (2003) to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), I find the association slightly tenuous. While both films have a Japanese connection, feature protagonists that are stuck in emotional limbo, show the often humorous outcomes of clashes in culture and focus on the development of an unlikely friendship, Ratanaruang’s film is darker in tone and more complex in scope. Simultaneously bizarre, sad and intense, it is the sort of film that lingers in your consciousness long after you have viewed the final frame.
Last Life is a film that actually opened up a lot of possibilities of filmmaking to me. That maybe you don’t have to know what you’re doing. To say that is a bit extreme, but I mean to say that with my experience— I’ve done three films before I know how to control a film— and with Chris’ experience, with Asano’s experience, there’s no way we were going to fuck it up…And we kind of looked for the film in the editing. And then I start to realize ‘oh that’s another way to make films’, as long as you don’t panic. You just keep looking. Maybe, it doesn’t always have to be bad films. And at least you’re not as bad as Wong Kar Wai, you’re not as messy as him. Only five pages and he makes a film; that takes five years to shoot. I’m not even like that. So then I thought, that there’s nothing really to be scared of.
– Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Set in Thailand, the film follows a Japanese librarian (played by the amazing Tadanobu Asano) and the series of macabre and surreal incidents that lead him to meet a local Thai girl (Sinitta Boonyasak). The plot relies heavily on the chemistry between the two leads and utilises their dynamic to shed light on themes of alienation, displacement, love and mourning. Christopher Doyle’s assured cinematography is key to establishing an atmosphere that moves between sorrow and unexpected joy.
In contrast to Doyle’s work with Wong Kar-wai, the visual style and rhythm in Last Life in the Universe is more observant and contemplative, beautifully capturing the slow and achingly lugubrious mood of the film. The camera lingers on a lace curtain gently moving in the breeze, a stack of filthy dishes left in a kitchen sink and the small details of the characters’ existences. There is a tangible sense of weight and oppression that is conveyed through the camerawork, which is relieved in moments when the narrative surprisingly shifts into magic realism. One scene, in particular, pictures the contents of Boonyasak’s dishevelled house magically being rearranged and ordered by some invisible force. It is moments such as this that make Ratanaruang’s film so compelling to watch, as he constantly confounds the viewer’s expectations. Thailand, which is often portrayed as a utopian paradise, looks unbelievably desolate in some shots, the characters’ journeys are littered with dead bodies and the plot continually shifts in unanticipated directions.
So many films appear to recapitulate similar stories and ideas, tracing the boundaries of established genres and conventions; however, Last Life in the Universe is refreshingly unique and stunningly strange. Film-goers who are tired of the offerings of mainstream cinema will undoubtedly appreciate Ratanaruang’s cinematic skill.