Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe is a lovely film, if a little out of balance with itself. Starring a handsome, unassuming Tadanobu Asano (the Japanese actor currently appearing on U.S. screens in Zatoichi), it definitely falls into the Moody Asia subgenre that’s gained some art-house currency recently. It’s one of those weirdly pitched oddities — it reminds me a little of a Wong Kar-Wai movie, a little of Takeshi Kitano — that employs brief outbursts of violence as catalysts of and punctuation for the inaction of its primary characters, who spend most of the movie moping around a dark house at the seaside.
Noi is a Thai woman biding her time before taking a trip to Osaka. Kenji is a lonely, suicide-obsessed neat freak who comes to wish he was going with her. She’s mourning the death of her sister and best friend, and he’s hiding out from people who want to hurt him. The yakuza stuff plays like selections from the Great Big Catalog of Genre Conventions — it’s clearly Pen-Ek’s intention that his film refer slyly to others. (A movie poster advertising the hyper-violent Ichi the Killer, which starred Asano in an unforgettable bad-guy role, hangs on the wall in one scene, and Ichi director Takashi Miike eventually shows up in a secondary role.) My main complaint is that this material plays a little too Tarantino-glib in comparison to the gentle, unhurried, sort-of love story at the movie’s heart.
But with ace D.P. Christopher Doyle behind the lens, it all coheres somehow, with moments of spontaneous, suck-your-breath-in beauty emerging from the relatively minimalist narrative. In one moment, we’re looking at the surface of a body of water, which is covered with a thick layer of green moss. Suddenly, an arm and hand appear on screen clutching an orange. The orange is dropped into the water, and then Pen-Ek jump-cuts to a body dropping into the water, as seen from below the surface. In context, it’s a jump cut into Kenji’s suicide-fetish imagination, and because it’s one moment of unexpected gorgeousness following another it gives insight into the addled, despairing state of mind that might lead the poor fellow to consider “This is Bliss” an appropriate one-line suicide note.
There’s a similarly lovely special-effects sequence that seems to come out of nowhere but unexpectedly reveals character notes. Pen-Ek reveals himself here to be an assured director with a welcome sense of humor and adventurousness. By the time Noi switches places on screen with her deceased sister, the trick isn’t even disorienting. The gimmick — which may or may not be a nod to Luis Buñuel — feels like just another organic and weirdly sensual element of an engrossing and intimate chamber drama.