Sunday, July 22, 2007

Last Life in the Universe (2003, Ratanaruang)

At the 34 minute mark, the title of the movie randomly appears. What’s the specific purpose for inserting the title here and not at the beginning of the film? Is it actually significant? At first glance it seems pointless but upon further inspection, it actually serves as an indicator that there is something else at work here.

Two lost souls intermittingly linked by tragedy form a close bond as they both deal with their grief and bitter loneliness. Slowly paced and meditatively somber, Last Life in the Universe owes much of its success to perfectly capturing the disconnectedness the two main characters feel with the rest of the world. Trapped, helpless and utterly alone, they would like nothing better than to just curl up and die. Suicide is an important topic of interest for Thai filmmaker Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and his position on the subject is murky. He does not champion and nor does he condemn it. The first scene quickly establishes the gloomy tone of the film as the camera slowly tilts upwards from scattered books on the floor revealing a dead man with a noose around his neck hanging from the ceiling. The way the director positions the camera and the accompanying understated score makes for quite the haunting image.

Complete opposites, Kenji is as introverted OCD neat freak obsessed with suicide and Noi is a distraught chain-smoker trying to get away from a messy relationship with her boyfriend who is finding it difficult to accept the death of her sister. Their time spent together brings happiness to their otherwise bleak lives and allows them to ease the pain of their internal strife. There’s a poignant moment when Kenju and Noi are driving by the nearby beach with noise of the rushing waves creating a melancholic ambiance and he asks her: “Are you sad?” She responds simply with “Everybody is sad.” In my eyes, this scene represents essentially what Raanaruang is trying to achieve with his film. All human beings suffer through sadness and despair and although the prospect of suicide or running away from your past and just starting brand new is appealing, life isn't always that easy. Ratanaruang doesn’t give his two characters the satisfaction of achieving what he refers to as “bliss” and nor does he offer any easy answers. The film is vastly open-ended and a yakuza sub-plot further confuses matters. I found myself increasingly frustrated trying to figure out just what in the hell Ratanaruang was trying to get across with his film. No doubt it’s challenging requiring a fair amount of thought and those with short attention spans will probably find it wearisome. Personally, I found its contemplative nature compelling and the ending which is completely open to interpretation was stunning in its final few frames.

Fond of extended long-takes, Ratanaruang is a patient filmmaker who keeps his camera at a distance to establish mood and remind the viewer that they are observing the lives of two people who very well could be the last two people on earth making the best of whatever time they have left. Definitely a unique experience that is difficult to shake off.


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