Last Life in the Universe(Palm Pictures, 2.15.2005)
Self-hanging, wrist-slashing, jumping off a bridge, getting run-over by a car, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. These are the many methods of suicide that Kenji -- played by the wonderful Asano Tadanobu, best-known for his portrayal of the maniacally sadomasochistic Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, as well as a role in the recent Zatoichi entry -- fantasizes about constantly throughout the course of Last Life in the Universe. Things are looking pretty bleak for our obsessive compulsive librarian protagonist, until he meets the bereaved and similarly distraught young woman named Noi. Together, they form a unique, quasi-platonic companionship. However, their newfound peace becomes vulnerable when Noi confesses that she is leaving Thailand for Osaka. In addition, vengeful yakuza forces arrive, searching for Kenji.
This film has a lot going for it: great performances from both lead actors, a strong and colorful supporting cast (that includes Takashi Miike), an admirably moody/quirky/surreal tone, beautiful sets and, lastly, the film's main attraction, lush photography by none other than enigmatic cinematographer, Christopher Doyle (Hero, Rabbit Proof Fence, In the Mood for Love). This film is truly atmospheric and utterly beautiful to look at.
The image quality, unfortunately, isn't as sharp as one might hope for. While not as bad as Hero's recent DVD transfer, this one certainly has its shortcomings. There is an overall softness to the image that can (at times) be rather distracting. However, there is some good contrasting and black levels look nice. In terms of audio, the film comes in Japanese/Thai/English with English subtitles in 5.1 surround sound and stereo. The 5.1 mix is good but could have been better.
The DVD comes equipped with a 20 minute interview with director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. It's a pleasant discussion: he talks about conceiving the film, as well as the trials and tribulations of low-budget filmmaking. It's just too bad we couldn't see a discussion between the director and his cinematographer. At least Doyle's input isn't ignored. If you're a fan of his work, this rich commentary is priceless. He is marvelous at articulating his filmmaking priorities and he is a pleasure to listen to.
There are also numerous/endless collage photos by Doyle that are certainly intriguing, yet seem somewhat arbitrary (and they're annoying to flip though on the DVD remote). The disc also includes the film's trailer, as well as some for other Palm releases. The packaging comes in a clear amaray case with a bio and filmmography for both the director and the cinematographer (it also includes a neat silhouette design of a hanged man).
All and all, a pretty solid (if only slightly meandering) story featuring some truly exceptional imagery by one of today's greatest cinematographers. This film is certainly worth a look, as is the DVD, due primarily to a terrific, not-to-be-missed commentary by Doyle. -- Neil Karassik