Friday, March 18, 2005

Last Life in The Universe

Pen-ek Ratanaruang throws together this movie in much the same way that V likes to cook - he gathers together an odd set of available thematic ingredients and stir fries them into an unlikely, but undoubtedly tasty dish.

On any other day something completely different might have resulted from the same on-the-fry creativity. And I loved this film the way I love a great dish. If someone were to tell me that it wasn't at all to their taste I'd understand completely. I'm almost prepared to admit that it's actually quite easy to dislike, like oysters or sweetbreads. (Yet I'd be less tolerant if someone were to observe that my favourite book or work of art was utter rubbish!)

Each of the main ingredients brings it's own distinctive flavour to the final concoction. Yet the core idea is ultra-disorderly girl connects with obsessively orderly guy. While she lives within a domestic apocalypse, his devastation is internal. Ratanaruang says he has known many girls like Noi, the sort that leave their bras on top of the TV. Kenji meanwhile is a bit of a Thai joke on the Japanese, the MUJI shopper taken to his logical conclusion. He admits that suicide doesn't appeal to him for any of the usual reasons, it's just that he's gone so generic that only flirting with death can provide a bit of colour and texture in his life. His excessive cerebrality contrasts with her spontaneity and street smarts.

Tadanobu Asano ("Japan's Johnny Depp") says he didn't fully understand what Ratanaruang was trying to achieve with this film, but himself became fascinated with the character of Kenji, which was based on someone that the director actually met and who did indeed work at the Japanese Institute in Bangkok.

Having recently re-viewed Kitano's Zatoichi in which Asano played the wryly impassive ronin Hattori, I am becoming quite a big fan of his. His face has a strange asymmetrical serenity, one eyelid drooping just a fraction lower than the other. Apparently acting comes second in his life to his band Mach 1.67, but pays the bills. Yet he turns down hundreds of scripts and Ratanaruang was told that the mere fact that he had accepted the role of Kenji was indication enough that his dedication to the part would be absolute. The Thai director pays homage to Asano's most famous role, that of Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, when we see a poster for that film on the side of a bookshelf in the library where Kenji works...except that it is the face of another actor in the photograph.

This is a script that had to be filmed to be in any way complete. The finished film is the director's personal dialogue with his potentially unpromising material. Fascination is the key - the challenge for Ratanaruang was to make palpable the fascination that Noi and Kenji have for each other and to fascinate us with every detail of their story, even when on paper at least it should be utterly lugubrious.

The music plays a big, understated part in this. Ratanaruang says he picked a composer that lived in his neighbourhood and just asked him to provide a score that you won't hear start and won't notice when it fades. The cinematography is also outstanding. It's the work of the great Christofer Doyle, who teamed up with Zhang Zimou on Hero and regularly collaborates with Wong Kar Wai, most recently on 2046.

In the end the ingredients that got this strange but wonderdful film funded and produced were not the seemingly bland thematic vegetables, but rather the meaty presences of three recognised talents in Asian cinema, Ratanaruang, Asano and Doyle. Takeshi Miike also appears in a Yakuza cameo, and Ratanaruang has admitted that the Japanese director helped facilitate the location filming in Osaka.

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