Sunday, August 29, 2004

Last Life In The Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan)

* * * ¼ (Out of four)
Seen 24 August 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (with co-writer Prabda Yoon) tells a story in Last Life In The Universe, but he implies another. He hides it well, though, disguising this second, hidden story as character bits for the first story until we see a character from an angle that had been carefully avoided up until that point.

Up until that point, it's not unreasonable to watch Ratanaruang's movie and look at it as being reminiscent of the work of Tsai Ming-liang. There's a plot, but it's subordinate to mood, and dialogue is kept to a minimum. The in-story reason for this is that the main characters don't share much in the way of language, not that Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is much of a talker anyway. Kenji is a librarian working at the Japanese Cultural Center in Bangkok, while Noi and Nid (Sinitta and Laila Boonyasak) are a pair of pretty young girls, sisters, who work as hostesses in a local club which caters to Japanese tourists. They wind up speaking English as an intermediary (though frequently with heavy enough accents to require subtitles).

Kenji's got problems, though. As the film opens, he is attempting suicide, in a sort of half-hearted manner. He's got what appears to be obsessive-compulsive disorder, arranging everything in his refrigerator just so and apparently ordering the books which fill his apartment by the Dewey Decimal System. He spots Nid looking at a children's book in the center and is infatuated. And to make things worse, Kenji's brother comes to town, having annoyed an Osaka yakuza boss by sleeping with his daughter.

Kenji and Takashi don't have much in common, and Nid irritates Noi. But they're family, and when both families experience a sudden tragedy, the survivors retreat to the sisters' home in the country. It's an appalling mess, which drives Kenji crazy.

The middle portion is vaguely romantic, as the two survivors feel each other out, and there's a really beautiful special-effects sequence as Kenji cleans the house. And just as it starts getting too arty... Well, remember those yakuza who were after Kenji's brother? They eventually send a trio of over-the-top assassins, led by Takashi Miike, of all people (he's normally a director; a poster for one of his gonzo yakuza movies is featured early on).

It struck me how little this movie worries about giving offense; the Thai characters would occasionally throw the word "Jap" out, and the head yakuza's comments to airport security about whether someone of their ethnicity would hijack a plane is too politically incorrect to even be considered in an American movie. I wasn't sure whether to be shocked in terms of it being a cultural difference between Asia and America or just take it as this specific character saying it being important.

I'm understating how funny the movie is at times; much of it is dark humor, based on how ineffective (or indecisive) Kenji's suicide attempts are or how the stink of rotting corpses is apparently powerful enough to gross out the trio of assassins. There's a little bit of the Three Stooges in the killers, for that matter, as Miike's character smacks his dim-witted assistants around like Moe frustrated by Curly's idiocy. It's far from a straight-out comedy, but the funny moments are among the most memorable.

Most of the time I dislike the term "art film" because it implies that more mainstream films aren't art, and that the person using the term thinks that this film may be more than most of the unwashed heathens who make up the American audience could understand. In this case, I think it's somewhat apt. I don't think it's out of most audience members' grasp, but it does reward that audience in direct proportion to the effort they put in to watching it.

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