' Cinema Romantico: Last Life In The Universe

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Last Life In The Universe

If upon entering your apartment and noticing a noose conspicuously dangling from the ceiling all your brother can muster is a casual “Suicide again?” right before deeming he needs to hop in the shower as a way to beat the heat, you might have a problem. Kenji (Tadanobu Asano), the prospective consumer of that noose, has a problem, though he is hesitant to advise in voiceover of just what his problem consists.

His suicide is not one of the standard-issue reasons: hopelessness, romantic failure, money problems. His suicide note that isn’t one may reveal a clue. It says: This Is Bliss. Does he find it, whether in life or in death? That’s the poetical sensory journey undertaken. The film seems headed for an answer until a final whomper of a shot that re-defines everything and renders any and all participation in the movie-watching Guess Ahead Game mute.


Kenji’s life seems less blissful than strictly regimented. His sparking clean, just-so apartment resembles a fluorescent-lit library, which happens to be where he works for a day job. He rejects conversation and friends. All that interests him is bliss, but his demeanor suggests bliss cannot be attained in this earthly realm. Things change when his brother, a lout and a Yakuza who has fled his homeland, shows up unannounced with a friend. Before long the friend has murdered the brother and Kenji has murdered the friend.

The anti-sensationalist manner in which director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang shoots this sequence suggests that even homicide is not enough to wake Kenji from his slumber. That awakening arrives later when another flirtation with a suicide at a bridge is cut short by the materialization of Nid (Laila Boonyasak), the same comely angel he spied but for a moment in his library. This suggests destiny – also, random chance, good and bad. Bad for her because she gets sideswiped by a truck and killed. Good for him because he does not jump and meets Nid’s sister, Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), the Paula Abdul to his M.C. Skat Cat – that is, opposites attract.

She is as slovenly as he is neat, which he learns when she invites him over to her place after they spend the night at the hospital in the ill-fated hope Nid might survive. From that point the film morphs into one of those Tentative Turning Intimate Connection films in which proximity breeds familiarity, though not much else. They eat – several times – and he attempts to spic & span her pad – several times – which she alternately rebuffs and welcomes. They have some fun. She gains some sympathy for him and he for her, beyond the context of the accident and death, though I would hesitate to label it “an understanding of”.

The other key element at play is fantasy. On several occasions Ratanaruang serves up sequences that quite purposely strike an illusory tone, as if they are figments of the characters' imaginations. And that brings us back to the last shot. It re-defines all that we've seen and sends us hurtling back through all of it, re-adjusting our entire attitude. So often these sorts of ends are mere parlor tricks (see: "The Sixth Sense") but in this one, I think, lies the entire concept of "Last Life In The Universe."

You don't necessarily have to off yourself to achieve bliss when you can just play make believe.

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