Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Last Life in the Universe" is a stylish, slightly surreal mood piece in which two marginalized people cross paths for an unexpectedly happy interlude. It's a sophisticated collaboration between the venturesome Ratanaruang, ace cameraman Christopher Doyle and two charismatic stars: lean, handsome Asano Tadanobu (of Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi") and sexy newcomer Sinitta Boonyasak. The Thai locales, the stars and Doyle's expressive cinematography add up to a disarmingly seductive yet always precarious film experience.
Tadanobu's Kenji is an ex-yakuza living in Bangkok, where he has taken a job as an assistant librarian in the city's Japan Cultural Center. He divides his time between the center and his book-filled apartment and contemplates suicide as a great relief. (He actually attempts it several times, only to be foiled by comical interruptions.)
Then he encounters Boonyasak's Noi, who is just as intent on jumping off a bridge as he is. She's a caustic bar girl, and her vivid personality and beauty begin to draw Kenji out of himself. Their meeting is explosive, but Noi, who has good reason to be distraught, calms down and accepts a lift from Kenji. He ends up asking her if he can stay with her and she says yes, perhaps to her own surprise.
Noi's beach house, the film's major location, is a large and expensive vintage Modern of striking design, now in a derelict state. It would seem that it was Noi's family home and that her late parents were well off. The interior is a filthy mess, which the neat Kenji soon is cleaning up. Noi is at first wary of Kenji and then attracted to him. They start to relax and enjoy each other's company. At least for the moment, life is good for these two who both have lived on the edge.
The time the two have together is likely to be temporary for various reasons. Yet such is the power of Ratanaruang's vision that he enables the viewer to identify with these people no matter how drastically unusual their lives. That he is able to pull this off clearly owes much to the consistent freshness, surprise and grace of Doyle's cinematography, which reveals a depth and dimension to Kenji and Noi that they might not otherwise seem to possess. The score, by Small Room and Hualampong Riddim, further enriches the film's moodiness.
By the time "Last Life in the Universe" is over, it leaves a more heightened appreciation of life's all-too-transitory moments of happiness than you might expect from such deceptively slight material.
'Last Life in the Universe'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult themes, sensuality, nudity, some violence.
A Palm Pictures release of a Bohemian Films presentation of a Cinemasia production in association with Fortissimo Film Sales, Cathay Asia Films, Five Star Production, Pioneer LDC and with the support of the Hubert Bals Fund. Director Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Producers Nonzee Nimibutr, Duangkamol Limcharoen, Wouter Barendrecht. Executive producers Arai Yoshikiyo, Charoen Iampuengporn, Meileen Choo, Michael J. Werner, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Kaz Kuzui. Screenplay Prabda Yoon, Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Editor Patmanadda Yukol. Music Small Room, Hualampong Riddim. Costumes Sombatsara Suthisrisinlpa. Production designer Saksiri Chuntarangsri. In Thai, Japanese and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 282-8223.