Out of Time and Place; Pen-ek Ratanaruang on "Last Life in the Universe"
by Howard Feinstein
Before the renowned novelist Prabda Yoon revised it extensively, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang had a script for the film that became "Last Life in the Universe." The protagonist was (and remains) preoccupied with death, as was the filmmaker. "I didn't want to die, but I thought about death a lot," Ratanaruang says. "In Thai culture, death is not a bad thing. In Buddhism, death is a part of life. You will continue anyway. I felt so tired. I was employed by an advertising company that let me go out and make films. In my spare time I would shoot TV commercials for friends. I found out that everyone around me felt the same way. The world seemed to be spinning so fast. We were saying, 'Maybe we should die. It would be more relaxing -- and that's exactly what Kenji says in the film.'"
In the movie, Kenji (Japanese star Asano Tadanobu) attempts suicide repeatedly, but something always goes wrong. He is a loner, a repressed, obsessive-compulsive Japanese library assistant living in Bangkok with some dark secret in his past. Everything in his apartment is catalogued and put in a precise place. But while he is preparing to jump off a bridge, he becomes entangled with a young woman and her crass, uninhibited older sister, Noi (Sinita Boonyasak), a bar hostess. When a fellow yakuza murders his gangster brother in his apartment, Kenji somehow manages to shoot the killer. The desire to remain away from the messy blood and bodies in his apartment prompts a strange bond with Noi, almost a superego-id relationship. After all, they are both inadvertently complicit in the sister's death. She drives him to the huge house where she lives. The film takes a more positive turn as Kenji and Noi learn to know and understand, perhaps even love, each other.
A synopsis makes it seem that the film has a close kinship with the recent "Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself," but it is much more serious than Lone Scherfig's movie. Certainly Kenji's failures to kill himself are played for gallows humor, but the overall tone is dark and moody. "I am 42 now, and look at things differently," says Ratanaruang, who studied art history at Pratt and worked as a graphic designer for Designframe Inc. in New York in the early to mid-'80s. "That's why this film is different from my other films ("Fun, Bar, Karaoke"; "6IXTY NIN9"; and "Mon-Rak Transistor"). "I'm 42. You have lost a few more loves, you become lonelier. So I do identify with something in Kenji."
Ratanaruang, a lean, nice-looking man with tortoise-shell glasses, drew from his own experiences some of the characters, whom he wanted to be outlandish. "You want to surround Kenji with people who love life, because he doesn't. I was involved with someone like Noi. I really envy people like her. They don't read, they don't intellectualize. Life is just of the moment. They don't calculate in life, they just go on. They have no idea what they are going to face, but they live. That can also be said about Kenji's yakuza brother. They are very pure. They are so opposite from Kenji that at the end, we learn something about him."
It's difficult to know the span of time in "Last Life in the Universe." And in terms of space, there are few establishing shots, and none that locate the film in Bangkok (except for some understood references, like the Japanese Foundation branch where Kenji works). "We want to see things that are happening inside the characters," says the director. "All my other films have been plot-driven. I didn't want to repeat what I've done. So I decided to see if the camera can photograph emotion. Can we take the camera inside the characters and film them from there? When that is the task, inevitably location and time disappear. You've not always sure when it's night and when it's day."
"Last Life" is a true collaboration by people who already know one another. "[Cinematographer] Chris [Doyle] and I and Asano and [actor and cult Japanese director] Miike Takashi are friends. I've known [producer] Wouter [Barendrecht] for a long time. I knew Prabda from the set of 'Mon-Rak Transistor,' because he was at that time the boyfriend of the lead actress," the director says. "I knew Asano from film festivals. He has worked with Wong Kar-wai, who has always been supportive of my work, a few times. Chris, who I knew and who works with Wong Kar-wai, loves Asanao. It's a family film."
Doyle has a reputation for sometimes taking over projects from directors who don't know what they want. Did he make the shoot difficult for Ratanaruang? "No, I enjoyed it very much," he replies. "Chris works like a journeyman. What was great is that he didn't have preconceived ideas about filming in Thailand. He got a bit lost here. He didn't know the place. He wasn't familiar with the temperature or the local color. Space in Thailand is bigger than in most Asian countries, and most of his films have been shot where spaces are smaller. So he absorbed things day by day while we were shooting. We decided to find the film along the way, almost organically."
He takes a deep breath. "Still, we fought every day."