Last Life In The Universe Review

Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) 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, but interruptions and a sequence of violent events prevent him from carrying out his suicidal intentions. While contemplating jumping off a bridge, he witnesses an accident and meets Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), the sister of a girl he has seen reading a Japanese children’s book in the library. Noi is the complete opposite of Kenji 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 in Japan, 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 film that refuses to be pinned down to a particular style or genre, but is particularly Asian in its approach and outlook. The film is primarily a romantic comedy, the story of a lonely, self-absorbed Japanese man in Bangkok, unable to relate to the chaos that surrounds him, who eventually discovers himself in his attempt to communicate with a person he cannot understand and who can barely understand him – linguistically as well as behaviourally. However the film also unusually features a particularly violent yakuza sub-plot and elements of black humour in the depiction of Kenji’s imagined suicide attempts.

The character types are also almost too racially stereotypical to be convincing. The director’s impression of the Japanese seems to be that they are obsessively neat and tidy, organised, excessively polite, potentially suicidal, blankly inscrutable, and most of them involved with the yakuza. In this respect, the character of Kenji and the situation he faces with the yakuza resembles Shinji Aoyama's unusual approach to the gangster genre in Wild Life, but the film is keen to play on all these characteristics and in draw on many different and sometimes contradictory elements from Asian cinema. The subtle, romantic sweep of Wong Kar-Wai is blended with the slow, languid haze of Tran Ang-Hung, the harsh realism of Hou Hsiao-hsien and the extreme violence of Takashi Miike – but the filmmakers are completely aware of these references, self-referentially showing a poster of Asano in Ichi the Killer hanging in the Japanese Cultural Centre where his quiet library assistant works and even having the director Miike himself play a violent yakuza gangster here in this film. The director and cinematographer seem to be keen to just run with a situation and see where it takes them, revelling in the Asian cinema references, bundling them together and seeing what can be drawn out of them. And let’s be honest – if you had Christopher Doyle, Tadanobu Asano and Takashi Miike contributing to your film, you’d probably do exactly the same.

In many respects, the film is not really typical of the director Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Monrak Transistor), nor is it typical of regular Wong Kar-Wai cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Hero, Chungking Express). Doyle here chooses to dampen down his colourful excesses and more extreme camera movement and angles in favour of a more naturalistic style, but on occasion the style can flip over into flights of fancy, playing a few visual tricks and switches and throwing in symbols and references that are likely to be confusing for most viewers. The reasons for these choices are never clear and seem to be down to the particular whim of the director and cinematographer on any given day, letting the film take on a life of its own. From interviews with both, it seems that they have both adapted (the director perhaps more easily than the cinematographer) to reach an accommodation with each other and both – despite difficulties and disagreements during shooting – seemed to have gained from the experience, achieving something fresh and different.

Where does this leave the viewer? Well, judging from responses I have seen to the film, either confused and disappointed or charmed and delighted. On a first viewing, the film is indeed a confusing and unsettling experience, lulling the viewer into a easy-flowing romance with soothing music only for graphic images of suicide and violence to explode onto the screen at the most unexpected moments. After repeated viewings though the sheer playfulness and charm of the film comes through – the characters of Kenji and Noi – marvellously played by both Tadanobu Asano and Sinitta Boonyasak – are thoroughly charming and the film’s marvellous rippling score set to an undercurrent of wave sounds sweeps you along. The film may not know what it is or what it really wants to be, but that is all part of its charm, constantly surprising the first-time viewer when they think they might have worked out where it’s going and enchanting the repeat viewer who can find new pleasures in the film and the performances.

Artificial Eye have released the Region 2 DVD of Last Life in the Universe in the UK, including extra features that were on the Thai release which I reviewed earlier this year, as well as some additional features. The two releases are compared below.

The video quality is almost perfect, but it is the ‘almost’ that makes it ultimately a little disappointing. The film is transferred at a 1.75:1 anamorphic ratio and the picture shows very good clarity and tone. Colours are strong, but not vivid – which would be in keeping with the dampening of the colours talked about by Christopher Doyle and the director on the extra features. As any marks on the print are minimal and of little consequence and a couple of grainy scenes are undoubtedly intentional and inherent in the negative, the only issue with the transfer here is in signs of macro-blocking artefacts. Most of the time, the image looks very stable and detailed, but occasionally backgrounds break-up slightly if you look there (although there’s no reason why you should really…) and there is some flickering movement in the waving of trees and grass. For the most part the transfer of the film – and Doyle’s cinematography – looks fabulous. It would certainly please greatly on a cursory examination, but a more demanding viewer with a larger display might find some scenes distractingly blocky.

The director talks in the extra features about the care taken to build up the sound design and ensure that other elements didn’t intrude into the recording process. The sound is well transferred here, with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks sounding marvellous. It’s pitched a little bit low but it’s quite clear and dynamic. You may need to boost the volume on your amp to appreciate the beauty of the soundtrack and sound design, but be warned – there are a few sound elements that will lift you out of your seat at a raised volume.

The subtitles carry the tone of the film well and, with a strong black border, they can be read clearly. There’s a mixture of languages in the film, so some of the English dialogue is also translated when it is less than clear or slipped into the middle of Thai and Japanese dialogue. The subtitles on the feature are optional and there are fixed subtitles on all the extra features, except the English interview with the director.

Interview with Pen-ek Ratanaruang (42:59)
Recorded for the Artificial Eye release, the director, speaking in perfect English, talks about the various inspirations for the film and the challenges he set himself on a day to day basis, shooting in sequence and keeping the script loose to make the film fresh and keep himself on his toes. This is a fantastic interview, the director telling funny stories about drinking with Chris Doyle and working with a Japanese crew.

Thai Interviews
These are the same EPK-style interviews with cast and crew included on the Thai DVD, only having the benefit of English subtitles. They total about 15 minutes, feature nothing more than a few snippets of interview and some clips from the film. The quality is very rough.

Behind The Scenes (38:32)
Rather more substantial, this is an extensive look at the various aspects of a unique and unusual film and the resulting ‘making of’ is likewise interesting and dynamic, enhancing rather than spoiling the viewing experience. The video quality is rough and the sound even rougher, but this is very worthwhile.

Brief biographies and selected filmographies are included for Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Tadanobu Asano and Christopher Doyle.

Theatrical Trailer (2:16)
The trailer is presented in 1.85:1 letterbox, contains no dialogue, but uses titles and music to perfectly convey the tone and mood of the film. Perfect.

Thai Region 0 comparison
The video quality on the Thai Region 0 release is 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 some noticeable judder during slow pans of the camera. The picture quality on the Artificial Eye release is a vast improvement over this. The audio on the Artificial Eye release is neither as loud or as harsh as the Thai release, but both are equally effective.

Screencapture comparisons from the Thai Region 0 (top) and the Artificial Eye Region 2 release (bottom) are shown below.

Ostensibly Last Life in the Universe is a romantic comedy using the staple of two complete opposites with nothing in common who meet under unusual circumstances and end up learning something from each other. Even in this aspect however, the film is far from common, moving at its own languid pace, responding to the moods and rhythm of the characters and the locations, yet liable to be interrupted at any moment by explosions of extreme violence. It’s eclectic and erratic storyline and oblique references are potentially off-putting, but in terms of mood, character and perfect blending of visuals and music, the film achieves a rare charm, coherence and beauty. The clarity of Artificial Eye's DVD transfer and the superb extra features only serve to highlight the film’s qualities further.

8 out of 10
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