Life or death—which one has the nastier sense of humor? A couple of the characters in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe may be starting to wonder. A shy Japanese librarian in Bangkok, Kenji (Tadanobu Asano of Zatoichi) has a chronically interrupted suicide wish—he’s unsuccessfully acquainted with the noose, the smothering pillow, even the gun secreted inside a teddy bear. His morbid energies do seem, however, to pollute the air around him: Two yakuza corpses are rotting in Kenji’s apartment (a similar predicament bedeviled the protagonist of Ratanaruang’s 1999 feature 6ixtynin9), and he abandons a planned leap off a bridge when a car strikes a girl dead at the scene. He takes refuge with Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), the distraught driver, and their somewhat language-impaired rapport develops in locking strands of symmetry and opposition. He’s from Osaka (yakuza capital of Japan) and she’s on her way there. He’s a neat freak while her ramshackle house reaches Murdoch-Bayley proportions of slovenliness. Both have recently lost a sibling—though one is significantly more torn up by the loss than the other.
Following Ratanaruang’s ingenious, bittersweet musical odyssey Mon-Rak Transistor (2001), Last Life unfolds as a serene experiment in dissonance: long snatches of boy-girl quiescence occasionally broken by snarling bursts of gangster mayhem. (The film deploys a punchline cut to a poster of a bleach-blond Asano starring in Takashi Miike’s notorious bloodbath Ichi the Killer, and Miike himself shows up as a fearsome thug.) Notwithstanding a visual debt to the early domestic interiors of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Christopher Doyle’s cinematography again carries the strongest signature of any DP in contemporary movies short of Eric Gautier. Last Life inevitably recalls Doyle’s mid-’90s work for Wong Kar-wai, especially in the abundant attentions paid to Noi’s pensive, attractively posed chain-smoking sessions; elsewhere, a torn curtain fluttering plaintively in the breeze could have been sewn in from Wong’s Happy Together. But Doyle’s always-welcome presence hardly overshadows the film’s delightful idiosyncrasies—the director approaches montage as musical variation, and the camera as magic-realist lantern. Time and matter in Last Life become flexible, permeable, permutable; a single shot can serve as flashback or flash-forward, speculation or possibility; books reshelve themselves and the dead come back to life. Cheeky and elusive, Last Life in the Universe inhabits a high-lonesome world unto itself, a bright daydream that dissipates in the aching gap of a missed connection.